Early on in "The Spiderweb" American tanks reach Buchenwald. Those inmates with enough vigor impale their guards on the pointed posts that hold up the barbed wire and in a frenzy of incredulous gladness, loot the clothing storeroom. Then they rest, one to a bunk instead of three, and try to keep down their first decent food in years.

One of these profoundly depressed Jews lis Julius Coldhammer, the book's main hero, a master photoengraver who worked, before the war, for the best art publisher in Germany -- like "the finest pastry chef" in "the finest pastry shop," as he used to tell his wife, Hannah. Now although feeling "emotionally eviscerated" and "alive only in one corner of his mind," he hungers for justice rather than revenge, and tries to board an American truck headed for Wiesbaden. A sergeant hoists him up and in, and Goldhemmer's quest begins.

Why Goldhammer sets off before he can hardly walk, digest or talk is the core of this neatly built thriller by Joseph E. Persico, the author of "Piercing the Reich," a study of American espoinage within Nazi Germany. More than any other character, Goldhammer commands immediate sympathy and generates obsessional weight. He makes "The Spiderweb" resound not only because he's one of the walking wounded, one of the sleepwalking dead, a semi-retributive ghost with an engraver's precision in matters of right and wrong, but also because, as a top craftsman, he's an esthete as well, sickened by the Nazis' perversion of his gift.

Before he lands in Buchenwald, Goldhammer does a stint in Oranienburg, a less ferocious place where he begins work on "Project Bernhard," a Nazi plan to counterfeit British pounds (in those times "the most powerful currency on earth"). He has every incentive to do his best work on the plates; a coworker who tries to sabotage the operation dies of hot lead poured onto his heart through his chest. So Goldhammer plods on, stretching his skills and driving a 20-man crew of experts recruited from all over Germany.

His wife and child arrive out of nowhere and he visits with them for an hour on Sundays. After months of toil, he and his helpers come up with a perfect fake paper, and then the watermark, and finally the embossed effect -- through combining photo-offset with buildups of ink. Their reward is "three bottles of a rather respectable Sekt" and of course, non-return to the death-camps.

In many ways this is the most appealing, haunting part of "the Spiderweb": it has something worthwhile to say. The constructive finesse of Goldhammer's intimidated experts counterpoints the brutal sordor of the camp itself, and their final triumph -- a criminal artifact forced out on the rim of hell -- is ironically touching. Fakers become fakirs, they have gone beyond themselves, but their only future is in counterfeit. Eventually -- after half the world's currencies have been copied and printed up -- "Project Bernhard" winds down.

In early April 1945, Goldhammer goes to Buchenwald; his wife and daughter have already been returned to the nowhere they came from, and all he can think of now is Wolf Kruger, the SS officer responsible for their deaths and his own degradation. Once again the book goes through the skewering of the guards on the spikes and Goldhammer's truck journey to Wiesbaden, where, he's heard, there is a list of war criminals, one of whom -- Kruger -- knows where the master plates and the currency are.

After thus coming full circle, Persico goes on a series of tangents, with Occupation Forces -- including an American colonel named Houlihan and a beautiful German woman -- chasing the plates, Kruger and Goldhammer. Kruger, denazified by the colonel, becomes a fuel administrator and goes to work in earnest on "Spiderweb," an organization that funnels Nazis into safe countries, using counterfeit money.

Persico tells things with energy, but probing the ambivalence and demonridden guilt of the half-allegorical Goldhammer is beyond him, and he settles too often for verbal formulas: faces like "chiseled granite" or with "delicately planed cheeks and an exquisitely carved mouth." In the end, Goldhammer's obtuse and almost saintly remorse gives way to the cops-and-robbers antics of various counter-counterfeit he-men whose presence reasserts the book as a thriller just when it might have become much more.