New Maine Times Book Review: 'The Dam Committee'

Posted Wednesday, January 25, 2012 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: 'The Dam Committee'


by Earl H. Smith

North Country Press, 2011

259 pages, $15.95

ISBN 978-0-945980-96-4


reviewed by William D. Bushnell

Harry Crocket and Nibber Nabroski are a couple of lucky guys. They've just found a suitcase full of untraceable, illicit cash. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones who know about it. And the other folks play for keeps.  

"The Dam Committee" is author Earl Smith's debut comic mystery novel, a hilarious yarn full of malaprops, puns and funny scenes, as well as a dead body, a claim of self-defense, and a half-million dollars of ex-con Doc O'Neil's hidden stash.

After a 40-year career at Colby College, Smith is now the college historian. His first book was the non-fiction "Mayflower Hill" (University Press of New England, 2004). He lives in Belgrade Lakes Village.  

Historians are not usually very funny guys, but Smith is an exception. He is hilarious, a talented writer with a wry and pointed sense of humor and the ability to accurately poke fun at small-town politics, gossip, relationships, and the often untidy way things unfold when a town scandal is particularly juicy.

In the fictional town of Belfry, Maine, Harry, Nibber, and a perky waitress named Debbie make up the three-person Dam Committee, charged with the operation and maintenance of the town's dam on Grand Pond. Harry and Nibber are best friends — Harry is a worrywart and Nibber thinks formal wear is a shirt with buttons and no ketchup stains. Debbie serves burgers and thinks Nibber is cute.  

The night Doc O'Neil is released from prison, he is gunned down by his wife, who claims self-defense, and the cops think it's an open-and-shut case, because after all, Doc was a hard-case gangster who probably deserved it. Later that night Harry and Nibber are sniffing around the crime scene and find Doc's hidden suitcase filled with money.

What a windfall! A half a million bucks of untraceable cash! Harry and Nibber bring Debbie and Harry's wife, Diane, into the caper and the four decide to keep the money, despite knowing that the cops and a nasty Boston thug are after it, too. The money would just go to the government or to gangsters who would waste it, right?  

However, their consciences bother them, so they decide to spread the money around town in anonymous charitable gifts to folks and agencies in need, creating some very funny scenes at church (the preacher's unzipped fly) and the annual town meeting ("where most Belfy people were fed up with the whole dam business"). Their generosity brings scrutiny from the police and the town busybody, and loads of unwanted publicity, and the Boston hitman is still out there, too. Now Harry and his pals all have something to really worry about.

Harry, though eager to divert attention away from the missing money, smells a rat in the self-defense theory, but it will take some clever detective work, devious trickery, high water, and some good luck to expose a shrewd murder plot.  

Add a mysterious out-of-town cop who changes names frequently, a scar-faced mobster named The Nurse, a sanctimonious self-proclaimed deacon, a smarmy, conniving real estate developer, a shameless town harpie and gossip, a sheriff's deputy who can't keep her mouth shut, a former topless dancer with a steady trigger finger and a great alibi, and the shortest one-day murder trial in state history, along with snappy dialogue and smart plot twists, and Smith has created a delightfully entertaining mystery story.

But what happened to all that money?

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