In 1954, William B. Herlands, the New York commissioner of investigation, conducted a secret probe into the enlistment of crime bosses by the Office of Strategic Services and U.S. Naval Intelligence during World War II. The investigation, which was made public in 1976, primarily concentrated on the role in the American war effort of Charles "Lucky" Luciano, one of the chief architects of modern organized crime. The Herlands Report was the subject of an excellent 1977 nonfiction book by Rodney Campbell, "The Luciano Project."

The Herlands Commission documented that Luciano's involvement with both the OSS and the Navy was limited to providing a network of informants to help protect the New York waterfront against sabotage and to help prepare for the 1943 Allied invasion of Sicily. Throughout this process, Luciano -- who was serving a 30- to 50-year sentence for white slavery -- never left prison. Although it was proposed that he be infiltrated into Sicily prior to the invasion, this suggestion was immediately rejected.

Jack Higgins' latest novel, "Luciano's Luck," is loosely, very loosely, based upon the findings of the Herlands Commission. In "Luciano's Luck," Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower authorizes an English naval officer, Harry Carter, to recruit Antonio Luca, a Sicilian Mafia don who is living in hiding, to help create a popular uprising in the Cammarata, Sicily, which will coincide with the 1943 invasion. Luca, embittered at Americans for executing his brother in Chicago, has rejected all previous offers. Thus, Lucky Luciano becomes necessary to gaining his cooperation. (For the record, there is no evidence that Eisenhower even knew about Luciano's participation, let alone authorized it.)

When Carter meets Luciano in prison, he tells him, "Sure, in the Cammarata they still talk about the great Luciano . . . to a whole generation of tough young men, Luciano, who went to America and took the power there, is an idol to follow." Luciano rejects the offer, balking at the prospect of an early release in return for his cooperation. But, in real life, Luciano was willing to run over his grandmother for an early release. Any hesitation he might have experienced was due only to his own selfish wish to support the winning side, no matter whether it was the Allies or the Axis. And Luciano knew how to hedge his bets. For example, his prote'ge', Vito Genovese, had contributed $250,000 to help build the Fascist Party's central offices in Rome. And, as a favor to Mussolini in 1943 -- while Luciano was cooperating with the United States -- Genovese ordered the murder of Carlo Tresca, an anti-fascist newspaper editor in New York.

According to Higgins' fictional account, Carter takes Luciano to Washington to meet -- yes, of course -- President Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Here, Higgins displays some of his snappier dialogue:

"The President leaned back and said softly, 'I'll tell you what I'm going to do, Luciano. I'm going to give you a chance to be an American again.'

" 'By going to Sicily with Carter here?' Luciano said. 'Why should I? What's in it for me?'

"The President said, 'A bullet in the head if the Nazis catch you.' "

Luciano agrees to cooperate -- with no guarantee of clemency -- and is given a new name and an OSS cover. His first assignment is to get Luca's estranged granddaughter, Maria, a nun living in an English convent, to persuade him to incite the Cammarata revolt.

Luciano does everything from parachuting out of planes and killing lots of Nazis and Communists to boiling hot water and helping to deliver a baby. A James Bond clone who quotes St. Augustine, Milton and Luther, he is loved by all women, feared by all men. To be anti-Luciano in Higgins' book is to be anti-manhood. "Luciano's Luck" is a celebration of organized crime.

Higgins' publisher, Stein and Day, has been promoting this irresponsible manipulation of history as essentially a true story. The book shows why nonfiction writers -- and now novelists, as well -- are under seige by the courts and those who already wish to limit the free flow of information.

Unfortunately for the truth, Higgins has written his book in the clear, crisp style that so distinguished his previous six novels, including "Solo" and "Day of Judgment." It is destined to be widely read, as well as badly misunderstood.