Heather Darata

Heather Darata

Story Vault

By Heather Darata

Detectives Jake North and Dean Colter are not your typical Mayberry police team, although the setting behind their badge has all the trappings of the small town in North Carolina immortalized by the late Andy Griffith.

The town—Larsen, also in North Carolina—is a friendly place to live. Roots go a long way back, and it’s the type of town in which residents at least recognize the face if they don’t exactly know the name. Front doors are seldom locked from the inside, dogs bark but seldom bite, and neighbors continue conversations carried over the generations of their families.

But with all good things there looms a menace to tranquility, especially in Jana McGraw’s mystery thriller.

A woman dies in a house explosion. Something or someone nasty is crawling into the quiet southern town, threatening to turn a placid way of life into a demoralizing Cape Fear. The story only gets worse—or maybe better for mystery fans—when the number of people meeting grisly deaths begins to outpace the number of Larsen’s funeral parlors.

McGraw, an EMD at Henderson County 9-1-1 (N.C.), leads detectives North and Colter through an investigation marked by crudely carved initials on the victims’ bodies and a shocking photo covertly dropped for the detectives to find. The minute you think they’ve figured out the motive and suspect, the bombshell drops and another emergency call comes into the Larsen City 9-1-1 Center.

McGraw dangles the clue in her debut novel Initial Kill, pulling the detectives and readers through a world populated by public service personalities. She draws on her experience as a firefighter, following in the footsteps of her late father, and after that, her work as a paramedic, a detention officer, and, finally, a 9-1-1 professional. She said on-the-job knowledge lends to the novel’s realistic tenor, although as a novel, the characters are purely fictitious. She speaks the language.

“I love to write, and it really helps to have the experience to combine with the writing to develop the story,” she said.

McGraw’s a firm believer in “crime doesn’t pay” and makes sure the people wronged in her story get their comeuppance. No spoilers here, but suffice to say McGraw doesn’t let the good guys’ characters turn the other cheek.

“Somebody hurts someone else, and they’re not going to get away with it,” she said. “I like resolution,” which, she admits, is not the usual MO for dispatch.

McGraw wrote the mystery during her few and far between free moments, although allowing herself 10 to 12 hours at a stretch on her days off. The book took constant tweaking and after four drafts done over a year, she was ready to release it to the world.

“There was a lot to it,” said McGraw, who counts Patricia Cornwall and Gary Cahill among her list of must-read mystery writers. “But writing a mystery was something I dreamed about doing and my son Josh encouraged. I finally walked to the edge and jumped off. I knew if I never tried, I’d never let it go.”

The story’s ending is not the last her readers will hear of Detectives North and Colter, or the sergeant married to Detective North and in charge of the Larsen City 9-1-1 Center. McGraw’s already attacking a second suspense story featuring the same cast of characters (plus a few walk-ons for the suspense) and, again, based in her fictitious town of Larsen, N.C.

McGraw doesn’t know where the writing or characters will take her.

“I’ve spent so much time with them, they’ve become my best friends,” she said. “It’s my goal to involve the reader as much as I am.”

McGraw will be signing copies of her book on Aug. 9 and 10 during the Mid-Atlantic Fire and Rescue Conference at the Expo Center in Raleigh, N.C.