THE AIRMAN AND THE CARPENTER; The Lindbergh Kidnapping and the Framing of Richard Hauptmann. By Ludovic Kennedy. Viking. 438 pp. $18.95.

INFAMOUS CRIMES such as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. are so strongly etched into our national consciousness that we return to them endlessly, reexamining the evidence, exploring new theories about the culprits, searching always for a logical meaning to senseless, savage acts.

Unfortunately, the many rehashings of these highly publicized public crimes too seldom produce new knowledge or understanding. Too often, the literary detectives and their publishers only further obscure the truth as they advance far-fetched notions to quench our endless curiosity and to make a quick buck.

When the infant son of aviator hero Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and murdered in 1932, that grisly event quickly became labeled "the crime of the century." For years, the crime commanded national attention, but why, 53 years after the event, should we again review the Lindbergh case? That question puzzled me as I started reading Ludovic Kennedy's The Airman and the Carpenter: The Lindbergh Kidnapping and the Framing of Richard Hauptmann.

By the time I finished Kennedy's fast-paced, beautifully crafted narrative, I felt stimulated by new insights into Lindbergh himself and disturbed by the quality of justice practiced in the trial of accused kidnapper-murderer Hauptmann.

Adding immediacy and human poignancy to Kennedy's thesis that the wrong man may have been framed for the crime, Hauptmann's widow Anna still lives, convinced of her husband's innocence, humiliated by those long-ago events, longing for justice. And Lindbergh's widow, famous author Anne Morrow Lindbergh, lives with her tragic loss. According to Kennedy, Mrs. Lindbergh admirably maintains that if a miscarriage of justice in fact took place, it should not be glossed over, despite discomfort to her family.

THE BASIC FACTS of the Lindbergh case are these: On the night of March 1, 1932, Charles Lindbergh Jr., age 20 months, was kidnapped from his nursery in the Lindbergh's isolated country estate, located near Princeton, New Jersey. A month later, Lindergh paid a $50,000 ransom, but the baby was not returned. After another month passed, the baby's body was found in a shallow grave in woods several miles from the estate. For more than two years, dozens of investigators followed hundreds of clues leading nowhere. Finally, in September 1934, they arrested Bruno Richard Hauptmann, 35, a German carpenter and illegal alien, after he bought gasoline for his car with a ransom bill. Police found $15,000 of the ransom money secreted in the garage behind Hauptmann's home in the Bronx. Hauptmann claimed that a friend gave him a shoebox for safekeeping, and only after the friend's death, did he accidentally discover the box contained a large amount of money. The state convinced a jury that Hauptmann, acting alone, had built a crude ladder, used it to steal the baby from his second-floor nursery, and written the ransom notes. A witness identified Hauptmann as the man who received the ransom money. Others placed him near the scene of the crime. He was convicted and electrocuted on April 3, 1936.

Kennedy, a versatile talented British journalist, became interested in the case after watching Mrs. Hauptmann plead her husband's innocence on NBC's Today show in 1981. He subsequently produced for the BBC a television documentary, "Who Killed the Lindbergh Baby?," which will be rebroadcast on the PBS Network May 29. As a literary detective, Kennedy has an astounding track record: three previous books have resulted in the reversal of murder convictions in England.

In Kennedy's view, the adversarial combat of the courtroom, in which events are reexamined looking backwards, is a most inadequate method for getting at the truth. His own approach is to explore the story chronologically, beginning with Lindbergh's and Hauptmann's early lives, therefore setting the whole of events in perspective. Whether or not this approach better advances justice, it does give Kennedy the vehicle for a riveting, novelistic style in which suspense builds gradually to a climax.

Beyond any question, Kennedy persuades us that the judicial proceedings represented a mockery of justice. Anxious to avenge the tragedy inflicted upon a national hero, law enforcement officials ran roughshod over the facts, or crudely misshaped them to gain a conviction. Numerous witnesses including Lindbergh himself altered their testimony in a manner that doomed Hauptmann.

The police withheld and then doctored work records which would have given Hauptmann an alibi for the day of the crime. Of the two witnesses who placed Hauptmann near the Lindbergh home after first denying seeing anyone, one was a congenital, halfwit liar, and the other a nearly blind 87-year-old man. The go-between who delivered the ransom money first denied categorically that Hauptmann was the man who received it, then identified him in the courtroom, and embellished his story endlessly as he took his act on the carnival circuit. Lindbergh himself identified Hauptmann's voice 21/2 years after he heard a voice from a distance in the dark speak just two words -- "Hey, doc." At the trial, Lindbergh testified that those words were "Hey, doctor," permitting him to intone the second word with a heavy Germanic accent. The state's handwriting experts and police lied about how they had instructed Hauptmann to rewrite the ransom note, instructing him to repeat the misspellings it contained. The state suppressed other evidence suggesting the handwriting samples had been tampered with. In an effort to discredit Hauptmann's account, an FBI agent lied about the accused man's story of how and where he rediscovered the shoe box of money.

Most preposterous of all was the police and prosecutor's use of a crude, homemade ladder, found beneath the nursery's second-floor window. The inadequate height and wide-spaced steps in the ladder make it seem virtually impossible that one person had used it to climb into the nursery and back out again carrying the baby. The makeshift ladder seemed hardly the work of skilled carpenter Hauptmann. And finally, the police asked the jury to believe that Hauptmann had crawled into his hard-to-reach attic, pried a long piece of board out of its floor, and then fashioned from it a single rung for the ladder. The facts seem far more suggestive that a police officer, desperate for evidence, had pried loose the board and then in the crudest manner tried to prove that the ladder rung fit into the vacant attic floor space.

In short, Kennedy is convincing that Hauptmann was convicted by a mass of circumstantial evidence, much of it of doubtful origin, some of it clearly manufactured by the police.

KENNEDY MAKES such a strong case about myriad indications of prosecutorial and police misconduct that one almost forgets to apply equal scrutiny to his own earlier account, delivered in confident, swift strokes, explaining away how a supposedly naive Hauptmann innocently was gulled by Isidor Fisch, another German refugee who Hauptmann said gave him the shoe box which he later discovered contained the $15,000.

Relying on Kennedy's novelistic technique designed to reveal the early character of the principal actors, I reconsidered his portrayal of both the airman and the carpenter. Just as Lindbergh demonstrated determination, courage and ingenuity in flying The Spirit of St. Louis alone from New York to Paris, Hauptmann displayed similar traits of strength, beginning with his own solo flights from hunger and depression in Germany. Thrice he stowed away on U.S.-bound ships, undeterred by the fact that in his first two attempts he was immediately caught and deported from New York. He was quick-witted enough to prosper modestly in the Depression, finding work, investing wisely, playing the stock market.

And yet he befriended and went into unexplained businesses with Fisch, a con artist who most of Hauptmann's close friends disliked intensely. Kennedy tells us the two men spent days together, playing the stock market, engaging in other transactions including furs. Only after Fisch died in Germany did Hauptmann supposedly become aware that the furs did not exist. Neither did a pie company and other invented interests of his con man friend.

Kennedy portrays Hauptmann as strong and resourceful in most of his dealings, yet noting "it seems strange that Hauptmann remained in ignorance of Fisch's tendencies." And I would add it seems strange he would not remember the stored shoe box, even after Fisch died owing him $7,000.

Kennedy does not try to solve the Lindbergh kidnapping-murder, only to exonerate Hauptmann. He speculates briefly that Fisch might have bought the "hot" ransom money at a discount. He wonders at another point whether Fisch might have been in on the kidnapping and ransom scheme.

Obviously, Kennedy does not have all the answers, nor does anyone else. But he raises good questions, including broad ones about how adequately our system of justice functions when the public feels threatened and the defendant is relatively powerless. Despite his fervor to prove Hauptmann innocent, Kennedy's investigative journalism is a model for truth-seeking compared with the sensational "yellow journalism" which convicted Hauptmann before the first juror was chosen at his trial.

Mrs. Hauptmann recently attempted without success to reopen issues in the case. Perhaps Kennedy's book will encourage others to join that cause. It is a worthwhile endeavor, even if the mystery of the Lindbergh crime is never unraveled. What is ultimately at issue is a better understanding of the preciousness and fragility of constitutional safeguards to freedom in this country.