INTO THE BLUE

By Robert Goddard

Poseidon Press. 416 pp. $19.95

When it comes to cracking good literate entertainment, what you might call potboilers for smart people, the publishing industry usually -- sadly -- fails to deliver the goods. It's not for want of trying, however, and any new "popular" novelist with a fat book and intellectual pretensions is almost certain to be compared by weary copywriters to John Fowles, if, indeed, said writer has the slightest taste for the labyrinthine.

In his fourth such outing Robert Goddard, whose earlier neo-Fowlesian achievements "In Pale Battalions" and "Painting the Darkness" had me utterly spellbound and buttonholing editor friends to ask, "Who is this guy?" now does it again, I'm delighted to report. "Into the Blue" is sheerly fun and completely respectable, a book that will push the edges of late-night fatigue and at the same time never embarrass you when you have to explain those circles under your eyes.

Unlike the two earlier works familiar to me, which performed "period" sleight of hand (in "Painting the Darkness," Goddard even went so far as to create the amazing effect of a pitch-perfect Victorian sensation novel), "Into the Blue" is resolutely contemporary. In fact, it opens with that staple element of mid-20th-century private-eye fiction, the missing young woman whose mysterious absence (is she dead? is she hiding? or something worse?) normally propels so much mediocre plotting and yet here serves only to open the first of many trapdoors. Hero Harry Barnett, however, is no burnt-out but still gamely wisecracking gun-for-hire; he is instead a burnt-out, middle-aged English expatriate on the Greek island of Rhodes whose friendship with the suddenly vanished Heather Mallender was, from any sane perspective, probably doomed from the start.

For Heather, recuperating in the off-season sunshine from a recent bout of depression, is the daughter of Harry Barnett's former employer, a rich man who once believed his son's word over Harry's in a matter of bribe-taking and thus, in a stroke, rendered the already rather luckless Harry unemployable. Is it any wonder that the local police, led by one Inspector Miltiades (who himself seems, officially, properly aggressive and privately, enigmatically encouraging), are contemptuous of Harry's protests that, though the last person to see Heather head alone up a deserted mountain path, he had laid no hand on her?

With this mildly alarming beginning -- certainly an intriguing but by no means extraordinary set of circumstances, at least not in the world of thrillers -- Goddard travels steadily, cleverly, inexorably from light to darkness. It's the storyteller as magician: We see only what he wants us to see, when he wants us to see it. It's also the storyteller as displayer of shiny wares: The author holds out a strange trinket and, ever curious, we move toward it. And, finally, it's the storyteller as web-spinning spider: Along with Harry Barnett, the reader is trapped in the sticky filaments of coincidence, intention and destiny.

Stepping back, then, from Goddard's rather dazzling display of manipulative powers, but only at the end (when the last page is turned -- don't cheat), one realizes his achievement lies not only in the mapping out of a highly complex plot but also in his making it seem so casually arranged. You hear the doors slamming behind you only when you find yourself on the wrong side of them. In a way, novels such as this remind me of those amusement park rides in which you wait patiently in line, never quite glimpsing the structure itself, and not until you're strapped in and underway do you know you've temporarily entrusted your fate to a people-eating roller coaster.

Having said all this, I think it's only fair that I refrain from nattering on at length about any landmarks along the path of discovery Goddard's laid out. But if I do have a caveat, it's that Harry Barnett is, though likable, a loser, albeit one in the process of redeeming himself, and that Robert Goddard, in the three books of his I've read, never lets us have a contented "love affair" with any one of his characters. Determined to substitute ambiguity, it seems, for the more obviously marketable charms of good looks or sex appeal, he sacrifices a little of the audience's affection as we struggle to admire and identify with his more true-to-life antiheroes.

Since winter is here, and since current events may also be keeping us indoors, "Into the Blue" presents a welcome opportunity to escape. It joins "In Pale Battalions" and "Painting the Darkness" alongside such other excellent entertainments as Wilkie Collins's "The Moonstone," John Fowles's "The Magus" and "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and Francis King's less well-known "Act of Darkness" on my short list of books that leave you waiting to forget their twists and turns in order that you might sooner pick them up again.

The reviewer is the editor of the forthcoming anthology "I Shudder at Your Touch: Tales of Sex and Horror."