VESCO By Arthur Herzog Doubleday. 380 pp. $18.95

Robert Vesco may have been, as Arthur Herzog believes, a legendary figure and the quarry of "probably the most extensive effort on record to bag an alleged white collar crook." But the legend is growing cold. The accusations of the quarter-billion-dollar corporate looting that sent him into a life of exile are 14 years old, and in the interim Wall Street has produced so many other rich brigands that, though few are so colorful and arrogant as Vesco, it is hard to get excited about his mischievous achievements.

My sketchy memory of the Vesco affair went something like this: a fellow named Bernard Cornfeld had a mutual fund operation in Europe that Robert Vesco raided and milked. This got him in trouble with the SEC, which tried to send him to prison. Vesco had some boodle ties with Richard Nixon -- to whom he gave several hundred thousand dollars -- but this didn't help him. Since fleeing the SEC's net, Vesco has bounced around in half a dozen Latin and Caribbean countries that shelter crooks.

That's what I thought I knew before I picked up Herzog's "Vesco." Having finished it, I'm not much better off. I mean, the part about Vesco's life in exile is enlightening, but to me the corporate shenanigans are even more hopelessly confused than they were before.

Maybe that isn't Herzog's fault. Maybe the scam was just too complex to explain to laymen -- or to most experts, for that matter. Herzog says that the SEC v. Vesco case that finally wound up in court was "one of the more bewildering cases of modern times." Vesco sent 13 lawyers into court to defend him (lawyers got rich off his troubles) and the SEC showed up in court with 25,000 pages of testimony and 34 feet of documents. Herzog implies that the presiding judge was snowed. Who wouldn't have been? I'm lost throughout. And sometimes I think I can hear Herzog himself, threshing about in one of the denser thickets, hallooing for help.

I know it isn't fair to pull some of this corporate shell game out of context, but let me give you one paragraph to show the kind of stuff Herzog asks you to wade through:

"When Buhl asked him to analyze the Commonwealth United situation, Vesco thought of Milton Meissner, a management consultant Bob thought highly of, and, in New York Bud Meissner was told to expect a call. CUC was broke but it had a valuable asset, Seeburg, the country's largest manufacturer and distributor of juke boxes, pinball machines, and coin-operated vending machines. Vesco's notion was that, salvaged from the Commonwealth wreck, Seeburg would give value to the Commonwealth paper of which the IOS group had about $10 million worth. A vehicle was required that Vesco proposed to provide. At meetings at the Regency and the Seeburg suite at the Carlyle, which Buhl flew over for, Vesco and Meissner discussed the acquisition of Seeburg if International Controls could bail out Commonwealth as well. Vesco proposed issuing $5 million of 'funny preferred' stock in All American, his latest acquisition, to be sold to an IOS fund, which in return would give Commonwealth stocks and bonds that would be tendered to Commonwealth, controlled by ISO, substantially reducing Commonwealth's debt. ICC would add Seeburg to its organization chart. (Hogan & Hartson, ICC's lawyers, recording 165 expensive hours on Seeburg/Commonwealth matters.)"

A financial page junkie might get something out of that kind of reporting, but it leaves me gasping for air.

Too bad; Herzog has done an awesome amount of research. And when he has a chance, he can come up with the kind of easy, flippant writing that those of us who grew up on Raymond Chandler enjoy a great deal.

Herzog also has a fine talent for the compressed profile: Cornfeld, the pudgy, stuttering, lonely (despite the harem that always accompanied him), sometimes charming but usually rude and occasionally violent jet-setter. John McCandish King, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound guy who almost succeeded in taking over Cornfeld's empire; he owned 3,000 pairs of cuff links, was a champion knitter and clothes designer as a teen-ager but grew up to become an oil well hustler and bear hunter. Vesco, who had "mercurial hard-boiled charm" and (a great understatement) a "tendency to loot"; mendacious, overbearing, pathologically secretive, ridiculously boastful, and finally (perhaps) demented. And a host of others, some with "Guys and Dolls" names like "Mr. Wonderful" and "Norman, the Burble."

Herzog also does a fine job following Vesco's hopscotch exile -- the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Cuba -- and the miseries of it: the forced bribes, the harassment (accused of smuggling everything from cocaine to pepperoni sausage), the fear of capture that made him stash away money in all sorts of places. Above all else, Herzog's account of Vesco's exile shows that the final wage of sin is boredom.

The reviewer is the author of "The Oil Follies of 1970-80: How the Petroleum Industry Stole the Show and Much More Besides.