The same day they attacked Pearl Harbor, Japanese airplanes bombed Singapore. Seventy-one days later this "invulnerable" bastion of British superiority surrendered. Winston Churchill called it "the worst disaster in British history."

The author (not to be confused with James T. Farrell of "Studs Lonigan" fame) uses this defeat to develop what could be a compelling story: Follow an old-line mercantile family through the prewar years, give them a beautiful young daughter and a rowdy son linked to the underworld of snake-eating yogis, 'toss in a brash, tough American and a Chinese woman experienced in Oriental love-making, and bring everyone together during a frenzied finale as crowds flee the fallen city.

Farrells fills his book with the revealing anecdotes from which historic insights evolve. Prewar economic hostility, for example, is shown by British import quotas that kept cheaper Japanese textiles out of its empire. "Since cotton piece-goods were not included in the quotas," one character explains, "in no time pillowcases big enough to put a house ih began to arrive here in Singapore . . . pajamas to fit elephants . . . shirts that 20 people could have got into . . ." And, Singapore's bungling government emerges clearly when-with enemy soldiers about to sieze everything-it first destroyed, not stockpiles of invaluable rubber, but 1 million bottles of whiskey.

Woven throughout is Farrell's very human appreciation of what political upheaval means to ordinary people. Thirty years after the collapse of colonialism supposedly freed natives from repression, one former colonist reads a newspaper article reporting malnutrition, disease, overcrowding and slave wages. She knows, "There is really nothing more to be said."

"The Singapore Grip" has some good scenes, particularly a discussion of marriage-"True, the husband or lover has the added gratification of a range of intimacies usually denied to the passerby. But look here! The effect produced by a beautiful woman is visual . . . touching her does not bring you any closer to her beauty than touching a paint of a Botticelli brings you closer to the beauty of his painting. It might even be argued that the closer you get to this painting or this woman the less you are able to appreciate its or her beauty."

Unfortunately, Farrell's writing is generally weak. He never establishes control over his characters, frequently wondering what someone "might have been thinking." When propelled into action, they stumble over his descriptions: "This thudding of the antiaircraft guns matched the thudding of young Nigel's heart as he dashed upstairs to get Joan and bring her to the shelter." The reader can't wait for the Japanese to arrive and relieve everyone of boredom.

Such shortcomings result from Farrell's failure to make the transition from scholar to novelist. With few exceptions, he places a simplistic restructuring of research into the mouths and minds of flaccid characters. The data plead to remain on note cards, but he uses dreams, reminiscences, ruminations, eavesdropping, wandering thoughts, and photographs to drag them off.

Clausewitz, Metternich and obscure military historians quote their works to a sleeping British general. A faded snapshot shows ladies wearing "long dresses and broad-brimmed Edwardian hats swagged with silk and taffeta." Even in a brothel, amid promises of "oil massage number one," a young hero with "sweat pouring off his brow in torrents" argues the efficacy of the League of Nations. It's an impressive display of will power, but it's bad drama.

This is Farrell's fifth novel. His most recent, "The Siege of Krishnapur" was a well-received recounting of the Indian Mutiny of 1857. He has an impressive record, but he still doesn't know what type of book he's writing.

"The novel must replace history," Norman Mailer suggests "at precisely that point where the experience is sufficiently emotional, spiritual, psychical, moral, existential or supernatural" and the observer loses his objectivity.

Novelist Farrell correctly identifies the fall of Singapore as such a subject. But he doesn't go beyond what a historian could accomplish. Surrounded by note cards, he is trapped in his own Singapore grip.