BELGRADE LAKES – Nicholas kept Earl Smith’s feet warm for two and a half years while he penned a comic crime caper set in a village that bears an uncanny resemblance to Belgrade Lakes.

Anyone who’s familiar with the lakes will recognize some of the landmarks.

Hoyt’s Island is renamed Loit’s Island in the book, and there are real-life inhabitants, even though he changed their names.

Smith, former dean of Colby College, said Nicholas, his 8-year-old golden retriever, would get up every morning at 5 and follow him downstairs to his tiny office.

That’s where he came up with the fictitious name for the town in his book.

Belfry, a summer resort nestled between two lakes separated by a dam, is a credible backdrop for Smith’s “The Dam Committee,” which is scheduled for release by North Country Press on Nov. 1.

“There will be a lot of people who will say it’s Belgrade,” Smith said. “I resist to say it’s Belgrade. Although there’s Knight’s Store, and of course Belgrade has Day’s Store. Now that’s a difference.

“And Belgrade has a Sunset Grille. Belfry has a Sunrise Grille. That’s quite a difference also. Isn’t it?

“And the characters are all fictitious. You’re not going to get me to confess that they’re (real people).”

Smith sat at an antique oak table that once belonged to his grandmother and talked about his book, which he said is a light, comic murder mystery adventure with a little romance and a talking dog.

He said Belfry gets by on its good looks and the “free-flapping wallets of annoying summer tourists.” He said the locals struggle to learn far more about each other than necessary and face all new things with a great deal of wariness and caution.

The village in his book ran out of money to fix the dam’s mechanical gate and the crumbling shore wall that leans dangerously into the spillway.

Smith said stingy voters are fed up with the whole dam business and changing their minds is up to the “much-maligned” Belfry Dam committee: Harry, the fretful safety officer at the Gammon Sawmill; Nibber, Harry’s carefree alter ego and local handyman; and Nibber’s girlfriend, Debbie, a comely waitress at the Sunrise Grille.

In a town that cares a great deal about its water levels, the committee already has its hands full. Those challenges become even greater when Harry and Nibber stumble upon a murder and a suitcase filled with half a million dollars.

“The suitcase is trouble from the beginning,” he said. “After a rollicking night of karaoke at the Sunrise Grille, the committee, joined by Harry’s sensible wife, Diane, agrees to keep the dirty money and spread it where it is needed.

“The noble plan fails to reckon with either Belfry’s great thirst for gossip or the zeal of two men — Parker Meehan, a dogged federal agent, and a ruthless mobster called the Nurse. Both are snooping around, turning heaven and earth to find the suitcase.”

Smith said the story starts in the spring with the annual town meeting and continues through Memorial Day, when “flatlanders” arrive, the Fourth of July celebrations including a fireworks show, and Labor Day weekend.

Also in Smith’s book are “divine sign-reading” Pastor Peppard; Malfin Grandbush, Belfry’s venomous librarian and Grande Dame of Gossip; and a right-wing postmaster who plays Rush Limbaugh on the radio while holding “daily suitcase briefings.”

“I had a gem of an idea, and it developed over time as I started writing the story,” he said. “I wanted to write about small-town Maine and the people we meet.”

Gerry Boyle, a crime novelist from China and author of “Port City Black and White,” said Smith is a natural-born storyteller. He said Smith understands wit and has an eye for detail.

“Earl’s a terrific writer and with a wonderful dry sense of humor,” Boyle said. “He’s also an astute observer of human behavior. The book brings all of his skills together in one place, that also is an awful lot like Belgrade, Maine. I think people will love it.”

Jennifer Finney Boylan, an author from Belgrade, said Smith’s novel is a “love letter to the small towns of central Maine, and all the irascible characters they contain.”

Originally from Waterville, Smith, 71, and his wife, Barbara, decided 25 years ago to renovate a camp they built in 1964 on Great Pond and make it their home.

The environment with the mournful call of loons, recreation including boating, swimming and fishing, and the change of seasons are what the couple love most about their lake home.

He is the author of “Mayflower Hill: A History of Colby College” and “The Colby College Museum of Art: The First Fifty Years, 1959-2009.”

He said writing fiction is much different from writing about history. “The Dam Committee” came out of his imagination. History books have to be based on fact.

“I wrote two history books and wanted to try fiction,” he said. “I love writing. It was part of my job at Colby. Playing with words has always been fun.”

His wife said the writing process has been interesting. But she did worry in the beginning that the time he spent at the computer would interfere with their time together.

“He said two and a half years,” Barbara Smith said. “He got up faithfully and stopped mid-morning so we had a life. We’re very busy. We have four grandchildren. We don’t let the grass grow under our feet.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Mechele Cooper can be contacted at 621-5663 or at: [email protected]