The jacket cover of Thomas Caplan's "Line of Chance," with its condescending ladies' magazine illustration, leaves no doubt that this is to be a period novel about a handsome and rich rogue caught between a mistress (the bare-throated lady with the wild dark eyes) and his wife (blond, high-collared, bee-stung lips). Thumbing through the heavily leaded pages (large print, wide line separation) alerts one to the fact that the book has been made to appear about 100 pages longer than it need be. Somewhere along the line an editorial decision was made that this book should be sold as a "surging three-generation saga set between the Civil War and World War I." Such a claim promises potential readers a lot of history -- family and American, and would indicate that a lengthy book would be in order. The problem is that "Line of Chance" is extremely short on any true insight or reconstruction of American history and only one member of the three generations of this saga shows signs of actual flesh and blood.

Then there is the title "Line of Chance." Aha! Three generations of the family Chance, "line" of Chance (get it?). But one can somehow forgive a novelist on his maiden journey (no pun meant, I assure you) the need to flex his "clever" muscles. Optimism returns at sight of a boxed "quote" atop the jacket blurb written by the author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies that says Caplan has a "genuine narrative verve; panoramic in sweep, vivid and fast-paced." As I have a certain respect for the literary tastes of a twotime Pulitzer Prize winner, I hopefully speculate that I must be wrong. The novel most probably belies its cover and even its pages. Caplan's publisher and editor must in such a case be the culpable ones.

The esteemed gentleman who signed the quote notwithstanding, "Line of Chance" is a rambling, cliche-ridden and often cloying saga of a jewel thief, the son of a prostitute, who through the combination of charm and larceny takes over a shiping empire. As the cover boldly promised there are two women in his life, a mistress who understands him and a wife who carries on the line of Chance, but who does not understand him. There also is a convoluted but always predictable plot, a family vendetta, congressional inquiries, and even mention of the Goulds and the Rockefellers.

Caplan does write with some verve and narrative drive. At this time, however, he riddles his prose with "penny dreadful" catch phrases ("He kissed her fiercely. Frances bit the bottom of his lip. Then she grabbed him. He was a furnace of nervous passion"); relies too often upon trite phrasing; and creates story twists foreseeable at the outset. Caplan has a creditable knowledge of jewelry (which he displays throughout the book), and in at least one character, Thomas Chance, an interesting character study could have been achieved if placed in the framework of a simpler plot.

As a first novel "Line of Chance" is hardly an auspicious debut. If, like its main protagonist, its author is "determined to achieve his own immortality," he will have to go some. He does possess a certain audacity, and instinct tells me Caplan is probably fast at work on a second novel. Perhaps next time he will refuse to send the book out into the world until it can make an honest statement. For in the end what is really wrong with "Line of Chance" is that it always totters on the edge of purple prose but has pretensions of grandeur.