A film producer is held captive in a darkened room for 524 days before finally he is freed for a price of $6 million. A little boy pleads desperately with kidnapers, begging them not to take his sick elder brother, and offers himself instead. A 5-year-old girl is abducted and her father sells virtually his entire art collection -- unique in the world -- to pay her $2-million ransom.

This is Italy this year, where there have been at least 36 abductions with political or astronomically larcenous motivations since January.

The Red Bridgades, kidnapers and killers of former Italian premier Aldo Moro have become a familiar institution even in the press of the United States -- but they are not the only, not even the principal, perpetrators of these crimes.

For most of the criminals and the victims politics is not even an issue.

The question is simply one of cash -- trading lives for lire.

In his quick-reading sketch of a single major kidnaping that took place near Milan in 1977, Curtis Bill Pepper makes all this all too clear. Writing sparely, like the Newsweek correspondent he once was, Pepper recounts the cold statistics in the early pages of "Kidnapped!," outlining the governmental chaos and miscalculations that have turned a crime once limited to demented amateurs into a profession characterized by the icy calculation of a multinational corporation:

"In Lombardy, especially, kidnaping had become a major industry, averaging $1 million for one kidnap each month -- double the sum paid in all the rest of Italy. No wonder. All those Mafia big shots in the south, exiled by the courts to Northern Italy -- it was like sending mice from the kitchen to the cheese pantry. Lombardy was a paradise for them. They all worked together -- Sicilian Mafia, Calabrian 'ndrangheta, some Sardinians as well."

For much of his account Pepper is writing from the perspective of Major Francesco Delfino, the "Kojak," perhaps the Eliot Ness of the Italian crime scene, dreadfully familiar with all the techniques, mores and monstrosities of the men he pursues:

"First, the family is told to get the money and not talk to the cops. If they needed prodding, they'd get a fingertip by parcel post. If that wasn't enough, they'd get the whole finger or an ear. When there was a postal strike or a mix-up in the mail, these bits of human bodies often arrived two weeks or a month later -- dried up, the flesh yellow, the blood dark brown."

The mutual respect between the hunter and the hunted that once gave a peculiar, characteristic honor to the affairs of the Mafia has disappeared to be replaced by a carefully calculated ruthlessness aimed at those few policemen who are not largely ineffectual.

"Increasing numbers of carabinieri and other agents were being murdered -- or crippled for life. Last week in Rome, public security agent Cesare Onofri had been shot in the spine, leaving his legs paralyzed for life. Another agent, Domenico Arboretti, hit in the brain, was left semiparalyzed without the power of speech -- instant old age in a young man's body. Nobody was safe from it -- not even a colonel in the carabinieri. Giuseppe Russo had been murdered while taking a stroll near Corleone, then left there -- his head on the sidewalk, his body in the gutter, like a run-over dog."

Paolo Lazzaroni, whose story Pepper recounts, is literally dragged into this environment of meticulous brutality one afternoon as he is headed away from his factory for a workout in the gym and then dinner with his wife and two young children. Lazzaroni, affable, dapper, could not be a more innocuous industrialist. He is the scion of a cookie fortune, his family the makers of tea biscuits renowned throughout Europe, the kind of delicacy that stocks the shelves of spice shops in Georgetown.

The narrative weaves between the victim, his family, and Major Delfino, touching on, though never fully exploring, the complex of emotions precipitated by the crime. Threads of personal reminiscence are woven into the pattern of action and intrigue -- memories of Lazzaroni's honeymoon, his world travels, the comfort of wealthy domesticity -- but frequently they seem superfluous instead of enhancing the texture of the story.

The heroine of the piece, clearly, is Paolo's wife, Anna, who shrewdly balances along the delicate line of cooperation with the police and with the criminals -- ultimately outsmarting neither, but finally successfully winning the release of her husband at the negotiated price of nearly $1 million. Having seen her in action, one only wishes it were possible to know her better than those glimpses given of her by Pepper's account allow.

Throughout the book, sometimes almost redundantly, Pepper returns to the question of Italy's general malaise, wondering, speculating, sometimes explaining how it has become the "social laboratory for the rest of Europe... first with this civic terror of the '70s."

The selfishness of politicians, the near omnipotence of the Mafia are given as possible, but admittedly limited, explanations. The problems are too vest, too complex to be more than skimmed in such a slim volume.

Pepper dedicates his book to Paolo and Anna Lazzaroni, "and many thousands like them, who live with the terror of kidnaping yet refuse to abandon their country in its hour of need."

It is such people, Pepper clearly believes, who may someday be able to reverse the self-destructive course of the nation, but in the face of the facts his book presents, that day seems to be retreating quickly into a grim and distant future.