The sound you hear in the distance, under the tinkle of the windchimes, is that of publicity drumbeating. St. Martin's is going all out for this action-suspense story, although it is that most risky of investments, an unsolicited first novel by a completely unknown writer.

"There was an initial hesitancy," reported editor Barbara Anderson in a special pre-publication edition for critics. But that was the past: "St. Martin's now believes." And so, by implication, must the reader.

Actually, St. Martin's claim is relatively modest: "A.W. Mykel is the next Robert Ludlum," says a typical statement sent out with the book, and a chorus of accompanying blurbs echoes: "Ludlum . . . Ludlum . . . Ludlum" like a tire going flat on an open highway. If that's all that they are looking for -- well, yes, perhaps Mykel is the next Ludlum. Not only does his title, "The Windchime Legacy," capture the indfinable charm of the "The Matarese Circle," "The Bourne Identity" and "The Rhineman Exchange," but Mykel has mastered several other elements of the Ludlum Formula. He crams his 400-odd pages with a complex, fast-moving series of incidents that makes it hard to stop reading. He also fills many of these pages with prose the dryness, flatness and awkwardness of which are worhty of the master himself. He handles the language sometimes with a sub-literacy that will be the despair of those who love words and their skilled use. And he is probably going to make a lot of money.

Question: Can you take seriously as a writer anyone who refers to "the welfare roles of this country" and reports that everything a character said "had jived with the facts"? Such a person may be taken seriously only as a symptom of decay in our language.

But -- and it is an enormous but -- Mykel's humble literary talents are put at the service of a mind naturally adept in the techniques of popular plotting, the art of evoking exotic scenes and the trick of sprinkling the pages with exactly the prescribed amount and flavor of slightly kinky sex. His writing style, for that matter, is not always flat and arid; in a couple of erotic scenes it becomes so vivid that one might alomst think he had subcontracted this part of his job, and it is often most effective when there is violent action -- though in these scenes (unlike the sex scenes), there is sometimes a bit of momentary confusion about who is doing what to whom.

There is also some confusion about who is doing what in the plot of "The Windchime Legacy," but this is as it should be in a cloak-and-dagger novel. The story includes not only the standard Russians and Americans, but a highly secret and powerful organization of neo-Nazis which emerges in full view only toward the end of the book, although there are hints from the beginning. There are schemes within schemes, situations deliberately set up so that the appearance of failure is almost a guarantee of success, sleeper agents who have been hoarded, unused for half a lifetime waiting for the proper moment to strike a blow for the Soviet Union. Mykel has established a high quota of defectors (from both sides), double agents and professional assassins -- a slightly richer than usual recipe for this kind of novel. But there is more: At the heart of the story is SENTINEL, an invention as fascinating as it is chilling.

SENTINEL is a new super-computer developed by the United States in top secrecy, a machine with real intelligence rather than the ability to manipulate data and follow orders. Ordinary computers do not really think like human beings, although their programs can be designed to give that illusion, but SENTINEL does; it has self-awareness, an enormous capacity to receive information and make decisions and even to set its own long-range goals. With the ability to eavesdrop on other computers and tap telephone lines, with satellite sensors watchfully circling the globe and with its own small army of secret agents (so secret that even the CIA -- particularly the CIA -- doesn't know about them), SENTINEL bids fair to be the first -- and thereby the only -- computer to rule the world. Its intelligence organization is more efficient than any other because all its key agents are wired directly into the computer; each has a small sending and receiving apparatus implanted in his skull for instant two-way communication. What the agents don't realize is that latest models of this device also include an explosive charge. This is a handy if drastic protection for agents who get captured and might succumb to torture -- and it could even take out a few Russkies if they're standing close enough. It is also security for SENTINEL, of course.. If an agent loses his head, he . . . loses his head.

The problems begin when a disgruntled American computer whiz, who knows how to build a newer and bigger SENTINEL, decides that his talents wowuld be better appreciated in Moscow than they are here, and begins the complex process of selling out. If a SENTINEL in American hands is a scary idea, think about a SENTINEL in the hands of the liberators of Afghanistan. This powerful plot mainspring moves a story as complicated as a stopwatch and considerably more interesting. By the time it is finished, addicts of suspense fiction will probably be willing to overlook the fact that much of the book is awkwardly written.