THE POWER OF THE DOG

By Don Winslow

Knopf. 542 pp. $25.95

"The Power of the Dog" is a pit bull of a book. Once unleashed, this thriller, whose title is taken from Psalm 22 ("Deliver my soul from the sword; my love from the power of the dog"), charges and attacks without mercy, shredding anyone in its path. But once readers' pulses slow down to normal, they're likely to be left feeling pretty empty.

Don Winslow's narrative spans about 30 years of drug dealing in Latin America and the United States, chronicling the passions of a coterie of saints and sinners. Few of them survive. The players are Mexican drug dealers and their molls, members of organized crime families in New York and a tough bunch of cops trying to shut them down. This is a riveting story, frightening and convincing in its raw violence. It is all about action entwined with the Central American strife of the late 1980s and '90s when the international cocaine business was at the peak of its political and economic power.

Adding to the period feel, Winslow, a private investigator, retells familiar stories in fictional form. One character rubs out a top mob boss at Sparks Steak House in New York, echoing the fate of real-life crime boss Paul "Big Pauly" Castellano in 1985. In other scenes, the fictional drug dealers conspire in the real-life murders of Luis Donaldo Colosio, a leading candidate for the Mexican presidency killed in 1994, and Luis Carlos Galan, a major Colombian presidential candidate assassinated in 1989. And the characters mingle with corrupt CIA agents and members of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration who battle over whether they should support members of the Nicaraguan contras, who are also dealing drugs.

With a bit of dramatic license, "The Power of the Dog" suggests a much vaster right-wing conspiracy than anyone has yet been able to pin down. Winslow portrays the New York mob as deeply involved in Latin America and offers the hint of conspiracy at the highest levels of government.

At the ground level, this is the story of Art Keller, a Spanish-speaking DEA agent and Vietnam veteran who is better than anyone at working the street to try to stop the drug dealers. He's a misfit caught in the bureaucracy; he won't listen to authority, won't compromise and will cross the line if necessary to get his job done. Unfortunately, he's also the victim of his own success, having befriended two young street hoods who grew up to become top dogs in the Mexican drug business.

Finally, Keller becomes protagonist and executioner in a drama of revenge. He heads a cast of predictable characters: the brutish and bloody Irish hit man who could stop killing if he could only find the woman who will bring him peace; the most beautiful blond hooker in the Western Hemisphere, who came from a broken home but is finding the nobler side of life; and a menagerie of monstrous bad guys more likely to be bumped off than Tony Soprano.

That's where the problem starts. Winslow's characters have personalities an inch deep, existing merely to serve plot points. Their dialogue oozes with stereotypes about women, Ireland and the sod, providing titillating quirks but nothing close to realistic personalities.

On the other hand, Winslow is practiced at establishing ambiance. He uses details that can take you right to the exit ramp for Dana Point on the San Diego Freeway or "down Garden Road to the base of Victoria Peak" en route to a magnificent view of Hong Kong at dusk.

Despite the detail, we're left with just a well-tuned plot, driving rhythm, intelligence and a touch of politics. All this sound and fury winds up signifying very little; it's hard to care much about characters sketched so lightly. Winslow has the page-turner formula down quite well, but I wonder why he wouldn't consider appealing to readers interested in responses beyond the realm of the adrenal glands.