Charles Martel, the protagonist in "Fever," Robin Cook's latest medical thriller, seems to be heading for a nervous breakdown--and who can blame him?

His job in cancer research is endangered--not because his findings are unpromising but because he is working in immunology, a specialty unlikely to produce anything that can be patented and marketed. He has seen his daughter, Michelle, develop leukemia, as her mother did some years ago. He has discovered that a factory is dumping the carcinogen benzene into the river a few miles upstream from his house. His efforts to have this practice stopped have netted him a bureaucratic runaround from various government agencies and a beating by thugs who work in the factory, while the local sheriff smiles his approval--that factory, after all, is the town's main source of employment. He has seen Michelle put into the hands of doctors whose chemotherapy seems to be doing her more harm than good.

Finally, he is losing badly in the internal power struggles at the research institute where he works, on the banks of the Charles River near MIT. He doesn't want to engage in power struggles, anyway. All he wants to do is cure cancer--first of all, Michelle's.

So it is not all that improbable when he tries to kidnap Michelle from a hospital. It seems less likely that he would succeed, as he does in "Fever"--bundling up the child and his lab equipment, together with a good supply of shotgun shells, and running off to his home in New Hampshire. There he boards up the windows, holds off police and an angry mob and continues his experiments at breakneck speed, using himself as a laboratory animal in the absence of the right kind of mice.

Can "Fever" possibly have a happy ending? Those who really want to know will have to read the book to find out--reviewers have a code of omerta that protects a publisher's proprietary rights concerning such information. By the time this question arises--say around page 300--such curiosity is the only reason to finish "Fever." The characters are cardboard cutouts, its literary style is utilitarian at best, and by then Robin Cook has finished (for this time around) the horrible revelations about the medical establishment that are the real payoff for reading his books. At this point he has nothing left to do but tell his story. In spite of these problems, it will be hard for all but the most dedicated literary purist to put the book down once they have begun.

What makes you start reading Cook, at least since his spectacular success with "Coma," is the expectation of horror and of a glimpse behind the scenes at the medical establishment. Cook discovered some time ago that for the average person an active, well-lit modern hospital is infinitely spookier than a dark old abandoned house. And since he had already written about that setting in his autobiographical book, "The Year of the Intern," he was able to take full advantage of this discovery.

In "Fever" the horror is not of the same magnitude as it is in "Coma," where the horrific situation is one of helplessness in the face of a vast, impersonal and malevolent force. Here the primary evil force is microscopic, a cancer cell, and the best section of the book is probably the first two pages where Cook describes the creation of that cell. He takes his "inside story" perspective to some kind of logical ultimate: We are inside the bone marrow of Michelle Martel, watching the carcinogenic molecules of benzene pour in "like a frenzied horde of barbarians descending into Rome." There follows a massive rape of cells, most of which die in the process. But one is only damaged so that it begins to reproduce as cancer cells. No longer responsive to "the mysterious central control, . . . they had become parasites within their own house." Through the rest of the book, a similar drama is played macrocosmically as Martel, a loner and maverick in cancer resarch, struggles against the "cancer establishment," the medical profession, the society itself. Is he a social cancer cell undermining the orderly structures that keep our world functioning, or is he a valiant white cell defending his world against the corrupting forces of greed, incompetence and callous bureaucracy?

The answer depends on whether he is right and the rest of the cancer establishment is wrong--in practical terms, on whether he can cure Michelle, single-handedly, using a makeshift laboratory in a house that is under siege. Ultimately, the characters and situation seem quite incredible--but this will not keep the book off the best-seller list.