OF COURSE, sayeth the scroll of wisdom, it all depends on whose ox is being gored.

It does indeed. Thus we have an abiding affection for the outlawed Robin Hood and his merry men who struck many a lusty blow on behalf of the lowly and dispossessed and were not adverse to holding hostages for ransom in a good cause. But, with a very few exceptions, we seem to have no affection at all for such as West Germany's Baader-Meinhoff gang or, even more to the point here, any of the politically motivated terrorist gangs now infesting Italy.

Why not? Certainly the barons of Plantagenet England, where some degree of noblesse oblige obtained, were no more corrupt or brutally exploitative than the moined barons without title who have been ruling Italy this past generation. And certainly the self-righteousness of bold Robin in his chosen vocation is easily matched by the fanatic self-righteousness of terrorists determined to bring down the bad old world wwith a crash, although their plans for the bright new one are, to say the least, vague.

Blame author Gerald Seymour for leading me to these speculations when I finished his latest book, The Harrison Affair, a compelling and excellent novel which cuts to the heart of both commercial and political terriorism in today's Italy. This is a long book -- no words are spared in drawing a vast but wholly comprehensible panorama of events -- and yet its intensity never flags. I suspect most readers will emerge as I did, with a headful of troubled thoughts and the sense of having undergone a journey of discovery through strange and alarming territory.

The narrative opens with the kidnapping of a British national in Rome, Geoffrey Harrison, bland and inconsequential underling of International Chemical Holdings, a multinational corporation with offices in Rome. This kidnapping is not a political case; it is simply a commercial venture offering its entrepreneur a large return for small risk. Multinational corporations, no matter how much they may writhe over paying heavy ransom for their abducted nonentities, are honor bound to do so, and so ICH, writhing all the way to the bank, is readying itself to follow standard procedure.

Then events take a dismaying twist. Harrison is abducted from his abductors by a very youthful and dangerously volatile terrorist, Giancarlo Battestini, who is ready to offer his life not only to the Cause but to the rescue of the seductive young woman, Franca Tantardini, who led his terrorist gang, who was captured by the police in his presence, and who, having provided the ingenuous Giancarlo with a glorious night in bed, now possesses his soul. His scheme is simple: Harrison, his captive, is to be traded for Franca. Communicate with the authorities, set a rigid deadline for the release of the woman, then hide out with Harrison until demands are met. If they are not met, well, Harrison pays the penalty.

So wheels within wheels are set wildly spinning, because the Italian authorities, having refused to yeild the issue in the case of such as the murdered Aldo Mori, that most prestigious citizen, don't intend to yield it for the sake of a Geoffrey Harrison. And ICH, besides having no way of exerting pressure on the Italian government, also stands to save the million pounds it would have to disgorge for the ransom of their nonentity. Only its security chief, Archie Carpenter, once an inspector of police in London, finds his gorge rising at the prospect of Harrison's impending martydom and intends to do something about it.

Already on the search for Harrison and his abductor are Dottie Guiseppe Carboni and Francesco Vellosi of the Italian police which, because of Carboni's and Vellosi's talents, shows considerably more capability than recent newspaper stories credit it with, and it is their alliance with Carpenter that moves the story to its unpredictable and potent climax.

The use of multiple viewpoint in presenting this kaleidscope of events -- the reader knows everyone's cards as soon as they are dealt -- works well here, because each member of the cast down to the least spear-carrier is drawn in depth and with a high degree of plausibility. Above all, Geoffrey Harrison, the quintessential Average Man, is so much the epitome of all helpless and victimized bystandards in hsitory that he becomes the measure by which everything and everyone is the narrative must be judged.

I must admit that the title of the book, The Harrison Affair, didn't strike me at first glance as overly inspired. It was only after finishing the story that I realized what a well-chosen title it was in its bitterly ironic implications.