I had looked forward to reviewing this latest novel by Hamond Innes as a suitable occasion for filing a considerable claim in his behalf. When he is at his best, this master writer of suspense -- a Scotsman with a loyal following on both sides of the Atlantic --the genre. While still giving proper attention to story, pace, mood and all the other elements that the conscientious craftsman of cliffhangers must keep in proper balance, Innes quite often manages to make of them something more -- studies of character in conflict ("The Wreck of the Mary Deare"), inquiries into the moral nature of man ("Levkas Man"), or explorations of existential frontier situations ("The Golden Soak").

I would have said all this and probably more, for I have a way of getting carried away when I am faking a case for a writer. I might even have gone on to point out that suspense writers who stretch their limits, such as Hammond Innes and John Le Carre, are the natural inheritors of Joseph Conrad, who in his own time was regarded as not nearly as serious a writer as, say, John Galsworthy.

Yes, all this I might have said, but it will have to wait for another book, I am afraid, for after producing at the very top of his form for his last few novels, he has slipped badly on this one. "The Big Footprints" is, I regret to report, inferior Hammond Innes. With it, he has somehow managed to make a grab at a serious novel, miss that, and in taking a tumble has been unable to save even a routinely competent thriller form the pratfall. Even Alistair MacLean could have done this one better.

The big footprints of the title are left by elephants, and the novel is clearly dedicated -- an offering -- to the salvation of the African elephant, a worthy enough cause that inspired at least one pretty good novel (Romain Gary's "The Roots of Heaven") in the past. I believe, too, we're supposed to feel that the elephants' champion, an Afrikaaner named Cornelius van Delden whom Innes renders in heroic attitudes throughout, is also leaving big footprints, laying down tracks that lesser men such as the narrator, TV journalists Colin Tait, can never hope to fill.

Against van Delden, Innes counterposes Alex Kirby-Smith, an experienced hunter who has convinced an African government that the only hope for its starving masses is the culling of the elephant herds as they migrate northward in search of water. It is to be a slaughter, though one justified in the name of scientific conservationism and authorized by political expediency.

All that stands between Kirby-Smith and the elephants is, of course, Cornelius van Delden. He not only takes on the white hunter and his refrigerator trucks, but also the army patrols that are out there on the plain to protect them.

Had Innes restrained himself to narrating van Delden's skirmishes with authority in the usual good, clean, taut style for which he is known, then he might just possibly have escaped with his book intact. Yet he clutters up his cast of characters with a CBS-TV man named Abe Finkel who engages in nonstop philosophizing on the sanctity and beauty of animal life when he ought to be busy shooting film.

There is also a girl, Mary Delden, more or less the daughter of Cornellius, who does a good deal of philosophizing herself. She (described as "tempestuous") and the narrator eventually have at it in one of the silliest and overwritten love scenes have seen this side of "Peyton Place.

He should also have known better than to write yet another African novel in which all those who matter are white. If that is how Hammond Innes sees Africa, then he has perceived it falsely. Only one black in the novel, a minor one named Karanja, is presented in any dimension. The rest are all those jive bwan sayers we all remember from the Tarzan movies.

Perhaps this is that one bad novel Innes had to get out of his system before getting on to something better. One hopes. In the meantime, I'll keep polishing up that eulogy I had hoped to use on this one.