"Hard Ground" by Portage author Joseph Heywood (Lyons Press, $16.95) is an exceptional paperback collection of short stories by the creator of the very popular "Woods Cop" mystery series.
While Heywood is not known for his short story prowess, this is likely to change; these previously unpublished stories are addictive and compulsively readable.
All of the action takes place in the great outdoors of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. A small map of the area is provided for those unfamiliar with the territory.
What's unexpected is Heywood's distinctive sense of humor - many of these tales have hilarious, memorable scenes.
The 29 colorful short stories showcase a wide gamut of challenges faced by convseration officers in Michigan's wilds.
In a brief introduction, Heywood notes "If there are unifying themes beyond the wearing of the same uniform, it seems to me they are the quest for justice and search for self-vindication and all the strange forms these concerns can take."
Heywood does a wonderful job in maintaining reader's interest. The action is fast-paced, the localized dialogue flows smoothly and the stories are filled with an unending array of eccentric and bizarre characters.
Law-breakers abound, including out-of-season hunters, deer-baiters, over-limit fishermen, an under-age marksman, heavy drinkers and many, many more.
Other characters include strange informants, an unusual judge, deadly villains, a hungry bear, Elvis impersonators and a devious religion-spouting disposer of animals.
But the real heroes are the Woods Cops - the Upper Peninsula's dedicated conservation officers who often lead quiet uneventful lives interrupted by unusual occurrences.
Veteran law-enforcers aren't the only stars of Heywood's tales - nervous rookies and recently transferred officers also share the limelight.
The author deftly deals with a number of emotional issues, exploring strained relationships between partners, other officers and assorted family members.
Long-time Heywood fans will enjoy the inclusion of stories featuring Grady Service and Lute Bapcat, heroes in his two popular series.
If you haven't read any of these books, you're in for a real treat - there are eight titles currently available in the "Woods Cop" series. Lyons Press has also re-released in paperback Heywood's highly-acclaimed earlier novel "Snow Fly".
"Hard Ground" is a captivating, mesmerizing short story collection that shouldn't be missed - it's certainly destined to be selected as one of this year's Michigan Notable Books.
Ray Walsh, owner of East Lansing's Curious Book Shop,
has reviewed crime novels and Michigan books regularly since 1987.
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This review was published by the Lansing State Journal on May 26, 2013.