THE TRANSFER, a first novel which also happens to

be a thriller, exists on several levels more or less simultaneously and does remarkably well on most of them. The structure is fiendishly complex: it nearly undoes itself from time to time but author Thomas Palmer, operating with the guts of a cat burglar, tiptoes along the ledges overhanging narrative disaster and hangs from the drainpipes until he finds a foothold time and time again, pulling the reader back into the thick of his tale in the nick of time.

It is a story of the Miami cocaine trade, told with an encyclopedic thoroughness and a magician's confidence. It is also the story of two brothers, long separated and without the slightest reason to care for one another, who discover that, cut the deal how you will, blood is thicker than the fear and hatred which might easily have driven them apart. There is, as well, the story of a government narc nearing retirement who begins wondering if just maybe his sympathies don't lie with the guys he's been catching all these years; there is a dangerously underpowered love story which tends to clutter things a bit; and there's a scary, caricature bald guy who is not only a homicidal psychotic maniac of the old school but a sufferer from narcolepsy, thus having a disconcerting tendency to nod off on the verge of his greatest enormities of violence.

Ray Hula, the nominal central character, is a middle- aged bit of flotsam in the Miami backwater, no hero, bereft of any capacities to enlarge upon his life beyond the small marine salvage firm he owns:

"He was not overly proud of his record as a human being; he considered himself no better or worse than most. In fifty years God had never spoken to him, and he didn't bother to listen anymore. Almost by default, he had achieved a kind of balance. But though he believed he was a free man, and that he'd long since shed the passion and prejudice of his youth, in reality his time on earth had crusted him over like salt, and each turn of the wheel left him a little further behind. So when the force of circumstance began to nip and bind, he was not entirely ready."

Palmer has got Ray Hula's number, understands him better than a novelist of tender years might be expected to. He gets closer still to the essential man when the tedium of Ray's life is interrupted by the arrival of his brother, Michael Cruz, a small-time hood whom he hates. Michael is about to become a very big-time hood with a multimillion dollar wildcat cocaine sale. He has labored mightily to get a boatload of the stuff out of the mountains of Colombia all the way to a reef off the Florida coast where he has staged a grounding--precisely so that the drug and harbor people would ask good old trusted Ray, their steady contractor, to bring it in. Using a variety of approaches, some lethal, Michael convinces Ray to join him in the enterprise. That is, getting the coke into Miami and sold to the Colombian mob, for whom Michael once worked. The Colombians operate out of New York; one Jack is spearheading the big buy in Miami.

The danger of course is that once the coke is in the hands of the Colombians, who feel that it has in fact been stolen from them in the first place, they want Michael dead. They want him dead so badly that they have dispatched an army to Miami to effect the transfer of the coke-for-money and make sure Michael doesn't escape.

The transfer is the flashpoint and Palmer handles it with the same kind of wit and intelligence that Michael brings to the operation itself. It is a long, tortuously wrought scene which is pure virtuoso work by Palmer: set in a gigantic shopping mall at rush hour, it simply crackles and bites and snaps until the tension finally explodes like the kind of Edward G. Robinson pictures that used to make darkened theaters one of the better places to be.

The mob soldiers are drawn with the same attention to detail which Palmer lavishes on Hula and Cruz: there is never any doubt that, however elliptical the scene, these are very unhappy, Key Largo-type gangsters. And the other complication in Michael's life--the bald, scary, narcoleptic psychotic--is finally fleshed out into a marginal kind of reality: he is, if anything, even more determined to kill Michael for reasons uniquely his own than Jack and the rest of the gunsels.

The Transfer tries diligently to be more than a thriller: it tries, and for the most part succeeds, to be a novel of character, to create an underbelly world utterly steeped in violence, corruption, and unworthy dreams. If it has a problem it is perhaps that the characters whose lives we observe in their ultimate crises are so unappealing. Only Michael, a venal rodent of a man, engages our sympathy and our hopes, a reaction of which we can hardly be proud. But, then, Palmer isn't writing about heroes and there is no justice in criticizing someone for a novel he chose not to write.

The Transfer is an imposing piece of work, far beyond the levels of Miami-awareness we have grown familiar with in the work of popular, formula novelists. Palmer has peered deeper into the heart of a certain darkness, he has avoided the clich,es which might have tempted others, and he has written a first novel of unusual ambition and achievement in a genre that is so much more rigorously demanding than the usual half-baked reminiscence of the beginner.