ROUGH CUT

By Bruce Cook St. Martin's. 231 pp. $16.95

THERE'S NO way to summarize Bruce Cook's second detective novel, Rough Cut, without making it sound like a screwball comedy. Trust me, it's not. It takes itself seriously.

The novel is meant to be a straightforward, hard-boiled private eye drama in the Chandler tradition, set in L.A. What it winds up being is something in between -- a kind of screwball bloodbath -- an eerily, earnestly unwitting farce. Which is certainly a shame. If the book would lighten up a little and admit that it's a goof, we could have some fun. But instead it keeps determinedly insisting that it's Bogart when it's doing Chevy Chase.

The eye at the center of this tempest in a teapot is Chico Cervantes, a Los Angeles detective of Mexican descent. Chico first appeared in Mexican Standoff in 1988 and was off to a flying start. If the vehicle he flew in was a little bit creaky, it didn't really matter. Chico had the rough beginnings of a voice, an interesting viewpoint, and the promise that he'd offer us some offbeat mischief in better things to come.

Rough Cut, however, never gets off the ground.

In the opening chapter Chico gets hired to act as a bodyguard to Ursula Toller, a film producer's daughter. In a recent roadside attempt on her life, her previous bodyguard was shot and apparently abandoned by Ursula to die on the road, the incident never reported to the cops. Chico suspects that she knows her assailant and understands his motive. Does he ask her any questions? Not on your life.

Heinrich Toller, Ursula's dad and a famous producer, has wagered every cent of his personal fortune and the dregs of his reputation on an all-star updated version of Faust in which Faust is "transformed into a nuclear physicist" and the devil is "the military-industrial complex." Further, he handed over "total control from start to finish" to his daughter Ursula, a woman he admits has terrible judgment and little experience.

Nevertheless, one Norman Collison, the baby-mogul head of a major studio, has contributed 40 percent of the backing, imposing one condition: that a rough cut (a first edit) of the film be delivered to his office on a specified date. If the deadline is missed by so much as a second, the studio gets 100 percent of the film and Toller gets nothing. Toller has agreed.

So eager is Collison to control this potential "smash hit" Faust that he's hired Intertel, a fictional corporate intelligence agency to stop at nothing, including murder, to prevent the Tollers from delivering the film. And, sure as shooting, they stop at nothing. Groups of assassins, some of them blood-simple Vietnam veterans, some of them freelance Colombian dealers, make regular and bungling attempts to kill Ursula and kidnap the film.

CHICO STILL hasn't asked any questions. Completely in the dark about the Intertel plot, he goes after the Colombians, who capture and torture him, while Intertel agents put a watch on his house and a tail on his girlfriend, a Mexican prostitute nine months pregnant by somebody else.

Meanwhile, Chico elicits the aid of that same gang of dealers who nearly did him in, and together they break into Intertel's offices to peek through the files. Discovering at the last minute that the files are computerized, he also discovers at the same last minute that one of the gangsters is an expert hacker. (At the end of this episode, Chico is once again captured by the gang.)

And so it goes on, Chico acting wide-eyed, serious and dumb, while the corpses and coincidences neatly pile up.

Commenting on Mexican Standoff, Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser detective series, offered that the book was "so good I read it twice." Readers might be well advised to follow suit. Instead of reading Chico's second adventure, it's a better idea to read his first one twice and wait around for his third.

Linda Stewart writes crime novels and teaches detective fiction.