Where would we be without Nazis? How could popular fiction survive without them? It's been 38 years since V-E Day and the confident click of polished boot heels still echoes on the wind. Hitler lost the war, to be sure, and his thousand-year Reich crumbled in 12 years. But what a beachhead he's established in the world of fiction--the fiction of his forged diaries, of a tabloid heading some months ago that proclaimed him the 94-year-old mastermind of Argentina's invasion of the Falklands, and, yes, of Bob Reiss' second novel.

"The Casco Deception" centers upon Hitler's brilliant plan to turn the tide of the war. The particular brilliant plan in this book involves seizing an island off the coast of Maine and turning its huge guns on a convoy in the Portland harbor. The time is early 1942, America has just entered the war, and such a blow, echoing the recent Japanese triumph at Pearl Harbor, will put America on the defensive and leave Hitler with a free hand in Europe.

More often than not, the villain of this sort of book is rather more interesting than the hero. Perhaps that's generally the case with escape fiction in which the plot is more important than the characters. Evil and menace can be compellingly sketched with a few quick strokes, while He Whose Heart Is Pure walks around looking like an empty suit.

The villain of "The Casco Deception" is John Ryker, and he's the best thing in the book. Born in Maine, orphaned by murder and suicide, raised by an uncle in German Tanganyika, he's a mercenary who hires out to the Nazis and banks his boodle in Switzerland, dreaming of retirement to some Asian paradise where he'll king it as a benevolent Aryan Lord Jim. He introduces himself by chivalrously saving a Jew from the Gestapo; later, when the Jew is captured anyway, Ryker snaps the man's neck to spare him the ordeal of torture. So we know he's a good guy in a bad cause; and what more could we want?

Ryker's task force consists of a crew of Austrian commando-types led by Teacher, a wry and cynical pedant. In the best scene in the book, Ryker and the Austrians fight off a Russian attack on the Eastern Front before heading for Maine. Reiss writes combat well, and his Austrians are an attractive lot.

In Maine, the hero's empty suit of clothes is filled by Tom Heiden, the base's security chief. Reiss gives his hero some character tags to set him apart--parental political clout that keeps him stateside against his own wishes, a broken heart that's healing slowly, and an emerging love for Corrice Kelly. She's the sweet young thing who's knocking herself out for the war effort while her father's peddling food and information to an offshore U-boat, and that's as much of the plot as I'm going to give away.

It's also as much as I can readily summarize, because the twists and turns of Reiss' story line keep things moving at a more-than-aerobic pace. If credibility is occasionally strained, the reader really doesn't have time to complain. It's a nice feature of the well-wrought plot, too, that hero and villain alike are constantly battling insurmountable odds. The tension never flags.

What's the old line? "For people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like." Fans of Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth will very likely enjoy "The Casco Deception"; fans of Ken Follett's "Eye of the Needle" may feel they've already read it. I never wanted to lay the book aside, and felt a little at fault for not having liked it more.

I suspect my problem is more with the genre than with this specific book. An inevitable problem with novels of this ilk, it seems to me, is that we know who won the war. Hitler didn't sink half our navy in the Portland harbor and forestall an invasion of North Africa. This needn't matter--we don't know who of this book's characters will live or die. But when the plot is more important than the characters, their fate does not concern us as much as it might.

Bob Reiss is a good writer, gifted at action and suspense. His publisher advises us that he's at work upon his third novel. I look forward to it.