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Savage takes big strides with his latest, 'Lake Effect'

Mike Savage's second mystery novel featuring Alphonse "Dave" Davecki, the 1999 "Burn, Baby, Burn," was a mixed bag, with many flashes of fun overcoming often disappointing execution.

Mike Savage's second mystery novel featuring Alphonse "Dave" Davecki, the 1999 "Burn, Baby, Burn," was a mixed bag, with many flashes of fun overcoming often disappointing execution.

The third, "Lake Effect," which was released in May, is simply good -- solidly plotted and executed, more likeable, less reliant on insider jokes but still with a distinct local flavor and sharp wit. "Lake Effect" is fun and a book that might keep you up reading past your bedtime.

The basic story is this: A greedy Arizona businessman is using a pipeline to secretly siphon off Lake Superior water for a man-made lake and development complex in the Southwest. His henchman is mucking around in Superior, Duluth and the North Shore trying to head off a Finnish secret society bent on protecting the lake. Savage's hero Davecki, a Superior police detective, gets mixed up in it all after he fishes an old friend's body out of Lake Superior and starts investigating the murder.

Savage's cast of characters, including his hero, are a lot more likeable than I remember them being in "Burn." So is the setting: Superior has not exactly exuded civic self-esteem for a few decades, but during the late 1990s it produced a slew of writers who cast it as one giant conglomeration of thugs, bars, petty criminals and strip joints.

In "Lake Effect," Superior is still down on its luck, but it's population is nicer and you can feel the love, as they say, a little more.

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Davecki comes across that way too. He's messed up -- rootless, afraid to buy a house, lonely, isolated despite his cliche-ridden reparte with everyone in town. He is obsessed with women's backsides, and when he encounters a woman we readers can see will be a romantic interest for him, all he can seem to do is bicker and make snide comments to her -- although in fairness her response is just as bad. (Excessive bickering with a female character was one of the flaws of "Burn," but it's under control here.)

But all this is captured with a light touch and palpable affection for the character. Davecki is a guy who knows his limitations and has also found some joy in riding his motorcycle fast. He is finding peace with a new house boat. He is capable of self-effacement and introspection.

And he's also a good, dedicated cop, capable of making decisions and taking action and thinking things through. The balance is just right -- Davecki is no postmodern antihero. You get a hint of depth in the character, but it never gets in the way of the whole point of the book, which is to root for a good guy catching bad guys.

Savage's social radar is sharp as always. It struck me in his handling of a bunch of UWS professors and fellow travelers who "belong" to this Finnish secret society. Savage masterfully captures the essence of the liberal do-gooder activist, in its noblest and its silliest incarnations.

There's this great scene when the secret society meets to plan its action to save the lake, and the meeting has everything -- a militant halfwit on a tangent about how the real work is getting rid of automobiles (she drove to the meeting), a kook who believes aliens are sucking the lake dry, the radical pseudo-socialist professor (who earlier is depicted indoctrinating his students) and vicious in-fighting that paralyzes everything. Fiction finally intrudes with a brilliant, workable plan everyone agrees on.

Here again, the satire is not harsh. In fact, it's to great literary effect, keeping the reader from taking too seriously environmental themes that, while important, are not the main point of his murder mystery-thriller.

"Lake Effect" is full of cleverness and wonderfully off-the-wall thinking. Some (fellow) off-the-wall readers will surely pick up on conspiracy theory references. In some cases with the local conspiracies, I wasn't sure where fiction took over.

Savage is also an inventive writer, with an exuberance I admire. In "Burn," he went for some, er, unique metaphors, and sort of like a rookie shooting guard in basketball who hasn't mastered shot selection, he sometimes went for too much and overwrote. In "Lake Effect," we're seeing a more veteran Savage in better control. That this book has a unique style comes through right at the beginning, where we learn that the lake itself -- personified, capable of violating the laws of physics and not especially happy -- will be a recurring character in the novel.

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There were some things I didn't like in "Lake Effect," a couple of scenes I questioned. Most of the action is really good -- especially the motorcycle scenes -- but a few bits are flat or cliched.

But overall, this is the best work I've read from Savage and something I expect his readers -- those already hooked and those soon to be -- will enjoy.

News to Use

The book: "Lake Effect," Savage Press, 2002

Author: Mike Savage

Cost: $11.95

ISBN: 1-886028-44-3

Author event: Savage will sign copies of the book at The Bookstore at Fitgers Saturday, Aug. 10, at 1 p.m.

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Recommendation: This third Dave Davecki novel is more polished and more likeable than the second and every bit as readable. A fun time.

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