A FAINT COLD FEAR

By Robert Daley

Little, Brown. 450 pp. $19.95

You keep turning the pages of this not-so-taut thriller about the Medellin drug cartel and the people fighting it not for the meandering plot or limp characterization but because it's jampacked with odd bits of information about the industry that accounts for one quarter of Colombia's gross national product. Robert Daley, the author of "Prince of the City" and "Year of the Dragon," is a former New York Times reporter who knows how to fill up a notebook, and he must have come back from South America with a suitcaseful.

Besides the statistics -- the drug business brings $4 billion a year into Colombia, employs 300,000 and supports four times that many -- there's a stream of revelations about life in a place where drug work offers the only escape from grinding poverty for millions of people; many of these revelations are shocking even at this late date. In the mountains of Bolivia, Indians are recruited as "stompers," people who "stomped on the coca leaves soaking in sulfuric acid, lime, and other chemicals in the vats. They stomped for days or perhaps weeks until such time as fissures developed in the flesh of their feet or ankles, to be followed by gangrene, to be followed by amputation. Meanwhile they would have to be replaced by new stompers."

Daley does not report why word about the ghastly effects of "stomping" fails to spread through the Andes. But his picture of desperate and often ignorant rural people makes the stomper story believable. In one area of Peru, "following the collapse of the international tin market and the closing of the mines, about sixty thousand impoverished peasants and laborers had moved into the valley to grow coca. They didn't care about the misery it would cause in Harlem or Watts. Coca to them meant a job, food, shoes for their children." Nor do these people care about the more immediate effects of their slash-and-burn land clearing. "The ecological cost was staggering, and not only in terms of soil erosion -- more than soil was running off into the rivers. The chemical runoff from the processing labs was killing animals and fish, was poisoning the entire Amazon River system."

Daley's cop-hero, Ray Douglas, makes a speech in New York when he's back from his South American cartel-busting sojourn, and the feebleness of his recommendations to policy-makers mainly serves to point up the immensity of the problem. Since coca is the country's only cash crop, the United States should "help Peru." In Bolivia, the United States should not only assist farmers in the cultivation of pineapples, as it has done, but in marketing them too, which it has not. More Drug Enforcement Agency agents should speak Spanish. The United States ought to provide local governments with more and newer helicopters. Daley portrays Colombia as a country all but owned by thugs -- "If you would not accept their bribes, they killed you." Douglas says the United States could "do more for Colombia," but he offers no major concrete proposals. It is very, very discouraging.

Yes, "A Faint Cold Fear" is also a "thriller," but oy vey. It starts off promisingly, in fact, with NYPD narcotics chief Douglas supervising a huge drug bust in Queens and then getting pushed into the bureaucratic cold by politics -- the wishy-washy mayor wants to turn over all drug law enforcement in the city to the DEA so that when the election year statistics look bad he can blame it on the feds. Douglas's assignment with the DEA in Colombia is meant to be an exile. Daley also introduces another promising character: Jane Fox, a talented New York newspaper reporter held back by newsroom sexism. She finagles her way into an assignment as the paper's first reporter based in Colombia and plans to cover the drug wars aggressively. She's married to a doltish lawyer she's thinking of divorcing and Douglas is a widower, so naturally they hook up.

The trouble is, nearly everything the two of them do in Colombia, together or apart, seems silly. Jane gets mixed up with a top member of the Medellin cartel while the supposedly sharp-minded Douglas either mumbles disconsolately or doesn't even notice. Toward the end of this 450-page tome, Jane is kidnapped for 31 pages, and Ray devises the scheme for rescuing her. That's all the suspense there is in "A Faint Cold Fear."

The particulars of Ray and Jane's romance are among the stranger ones in current fiction. While they are making love, Jane asks Ray, referring to his late wife, "If she were alive, which one of us would -- would you choose?" Says the ever-steady Ray: "That's some question." In another scene set during a late-evening stroll near a Bolivian garbage heap, Daley wins the commercial thriller prize for the Least Romantic Caress With No Irony Intended, with this line: "Douglas's hands moved all over her dress, never pausing in any one place, molding her body in the same way he had sometimes patted men down for weapons, though a thousand times more gentle."

When the two lovers break up temporarily it's hard to tell why. The plot's exigencies compel them to withhold information from each other, and Daley's way of handling this is to have one or the other of the lovers occasionally grow mysteriously sulky. Some of the bizarre, pointless excursions they embark on together appear to have been written by Albert Camus.

"A Faint Cold Fear" is a poor excuse for a thriller, but to get a good firsthand look at the social morass U.S. drug consumption has led to, Daley's reporting here is a painless way to do it.

The reviewer has written three private-eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.