WET WORK

By Christopher Buckley

Knopf. 271 pp. $19.95

HERE WE have a really first-rate example of a Fu Manchu novel, admittedly without the slithery presence of that Eastern arch-menace, but with a few Southern arch-menaces (south of the border, that is) in his stead. The good guys are trustworthy, obedient, brave, clean and even -- a rarity these days -- reverent.

Wet Work makes honorable use of a number of traditional story elements: the assembling of the knights, the worthy quest, the dead maiden to be avenged, the journey into new and dangerous lands. The subject, of course, is drugs; now that the Soviet Union has turned pathetic, and the hidden-out Nazis of recent fiction have grown too geriatric for us to believe they still might nearly bring about the Fourth Reich, what else is left? Only the Middle East and drugs. This time it's drugs.

A young New York actress experiments for the first time with cocaine, in an effort to bring greater authenticity to an off-Broadway role, and ODs. She had been the apple of her grandfather's eye, and it just so happens the grandfather, Charles Becker, is a self-made billionaire of the cigar-chomping sort beloved by adventure writers everywhere. (He barks at this one, "Go," and he goeth, and at that one, "Stay," and he stayeth.) Charlie decides to find, and kill, everyone who had a part in getting that particular bag of cocaine to his grandchild, beginning with the play director who'd handed it to her, and working his way back up and through the drug world to the -- you know what I mean -- kingpin.

(You will be pleased to learn that this kingpin is every bit as elegant and cultured and sexually kinky and darkly fascinating as anybody in James Bond.)

It is true that the word "scourge" is the most appropriate one to use in connection with the problem of hard drugs in America, and it is also true that many of us, ranging from daydreams to testimony before Congress -- if that's a range -- would like to "do something about it." Christopher Buckley lets us in on the impetus for his book in his choice of epigraph, from Mencken: "Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats."

Like Mencken, Buckley will do all his throat-slitting on paper, but unlike Mencken he's rather narrow in his choice of targets. There is some nice comedy derived from bureaucrat-speak ("Are they in a position to damage-control it if we get into the banana-peel situation?"), but that's about it. The waging of the actual war on drugs is pretty much left for other correspondents to cover, which means Becker can try to do, at best, only half the job.

The private war on drugs in this novel is, in fact, about as relevant as a novel about Batman fighting to save the world from cancer. The chutes by which the tons of drugs flow into this country are lubricated by money, but there's no hint of that in Wet Work. Rare is the ounce of the stuff whose transit has not been eased, encouraged or abetted by some arm of our own government, either knowingly pursuing another chimera of realpolitik or unknowingly harboring corrupted employees, but none of these are among Charlie's targets.

I know a man who's done undercover work for a variety of law-enforcement agencies, from the FBI to a couple of eastern cities' police departments. I asked him once if he'd ever worked for the DEA, and he said no. I asked him why not, and he said, "I'd be dead in a week." The reality behind that remark is not touched on in Wet Work, in which the good guys are all-good and the bad guys all-bad and only Peruvians take bribes. But Buckley's instinct was right in choosing a billionaire hero, to face the enemy at last with someone who's just as willing to throw money around, a tactic we haven't seen much of in the real-life war.

And, within the hugger-mugger, Buckley is a good writer and a good storyteller. The first half of the book, establishing the characters and setup, gives the cast more individuality and credibility than most adventure writers would have bothered to try for or been at all able to achieve. The changes he rings on familiar characters are quite tuneful and pleasant; the too-often-wounded cop, for instance, who wants to stay on the street and not be diverted to a desk job, here possesses an integrity and a gallantry in which one can, for the moment, believe.

The story line these characters troop along is serviceable, if a bit jumpy, as though Buckley had been trying to leap over the more obvious and tired scenes. And the denouement contains all the satisfactions that great quantities of high explosive and one extra story twist can offer.

It's no surprise that Paramount Pictures has already bought film rights to Wet Work, but it would be a mistake to wait for the screen version. The movie will capture the action, all right, the explosions and torture and twisted machismo and all that stuff, but the movie, believe me, will lose the humanity that exists in the novel's first half and which keeps the reader going, bobbing and weaving through the firepower of part two. Here's my advice: Read the book, criticize the movie.

Donald E. Westlake is a novelist and screenwriter. His most recent book is "Drowned Hopes."