March 12 2009 12:00 AM

Novelist finds intrigue in DNR and fish eggs


The clever title and outlandish dust jacket art may put some people off, but it’s what author Joseph Heywood delivers between the pages of his latest novel that matters. In “Death Roe,” the sixth book in his “Woods Cop” series, Heywood has enough political intrigue, love interest and action, all tied to the great Michigan outdoors, to not only keep his fans hyped but also continue attracting new readers.

The book follows protagonist Grady Service, a second-generation conservation officer with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, as he investigates what might be a deadly mix of roe, or fish eggs, provided by a shady contractor for the state. “Some people were offended by my premise, which is loosely based on a true story,” said Heywood during a recent phone interview from his home in Portage. “I didn’t get into the half of it.”

As always, Service finds himself embroiled in bureaucratic turmoil, which this time may involve bribes to state employees. Service is a devil-be-damned civil servant who’s not much for rules or departmental politics. Maybe that’s why Heywood’s books are so popular with the real deal, DNR conservation officers who follow his work closely and turnout like groupies for his readings.

He earns their respect by going into the field with them in all sorts of conditions. Last year he went on 30 ride-alongs. Heywood said the fieldwork is important to accurately portraying the conditions, the danger and the officers’ commitment to enforcing the law. “In November I spent 18 days with 14 different officers,” he said. “There was a little uptick in taking illegal deer, which was probably due to hard times.” But he stressed, “There are a lot commercial rings out there killing deer and selling them at local bars for $100.”

Most of his ventures happen in the Upper Peninsula, where Heywood spent his teen years. (His father, a military man, was stationed at a U.P. base near Rudyard.) Heywood got his journalism degree from Michigan State University and spent time in the military before beginning a career with pharmaceutical giant Upjohn (now Pfizer) and ultimately becoming the company’s director of public relations.

Heywood hasn’t hunted for 30 years, but he is still an avid fisherman. Several of his books feature extensive fishing sequences on U.P. streams and rivers. His book “Snowfly,” which first introduced readers to Grady Service, is a cult classic among fly-fishing buffs and is compared to Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America.”

As always, Heywood’s latest book features a cast of unusual characters appropriated from his travels. He mostly finds them in the U.P., where hermits, off-thegridders and other strange folks seem to be drawn. “There are some odd people out there,” he said.

He believes geography creates extreme characters, and he has begun lecturing on the role of geography in society. “The U.P. is the last great wilderness east of the Mississippi,” he said.

In this book, Service manages to navigate his way through large portions of the U.P, but his investigation also takes him to Alaska, New York and Central America. The time Service spends driving and traveling would wear out a normal man, but somehow he still finds time for his love interests. The loose threads left at the book’s conclusion may put off some readers, but that’s typical Heywood. “I make it as real as I can,” he said. “The outcomes are often very open-ended.”

Heywood has already sent out his seventh book in the “Woods Cop” series and is working on the eighth. One thing he makes clear in the series is the danger conservation officers face, some of which he has experienced first hand. He describes one scene he observed, where an agent confronted a car of nighttime hunters caught shining deer by driving right to the front of the vehicle, turning on all the lights and running full speed to the shiner’s car while everyone in the car was blinded from the lights. Everyone was armed.

His seventh book, “Hard Green Violets” — violets is short for violators — centers on environmental violence. Protection of the environment is a central to all Heywood’s Heywood books. “Violets” starts with a real-life development scam in Iron County in 1926 and evolves into what happens when gold mining takes off in the U.P.

The book he is working on now is based on something he picked up on a ride in the U.P. about the trafficking of Indian artifacts. Heywood, who has also written about the discovery of diamonds in the U.P., always seems to come across some interesting tidbit about Michigan and finds a way to turn it into an interesting read.

Joseph Heywood

of “Death Roe” 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 Schuler Books & Music, 1982 W.
Grand River Ave., Okemos FREE (517) 349-8840 www.schulerbooks.com