FEVER

By Sean Rowe

Little, Brown. 263 pp. $19.95

Lots of first novels have a story behind them, but few are as bizarre as how Sean Rowe came to write "Fever." According to his publisher, Rowe, a reporter in Miami, had long wanted to write fiction but couldn't get started. Then: "In 1999, fate intervened. While walking along a railroad track, Rowe was hit head on by a train. After flat-lining in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, he miraculously survived his serious injuries -- including a fractured skull and cracked vertebrae in his neck. He began the manuscript that became 'Fever' in the intensive care ward of a Florida hospital shortly after regaining consciousness." I hesitate to recommend close encounters with an oncoming train to all first novelists, but in Rowe's case, like the prospect of being hanged, it must have concentrated his mind, because "Fever" is a nifty thriller about some crooks who set out to hijack a cruise ship.

In short, this is a heist story. We all have our favorites. In the movies, they range from "The Lavender Hill Mob" to "Topkapi" to "Ocean's 11," and they often share certain elements. We want the score to be a big one. We expect the crooks to be an unsavory bunch with little mutual trust. A pretty girl should enliven the mix, and if she's lethal, that's all the better. The heist must go wrong, and the aftermath must be bloody and bitter. Finally, since we have come to respect the crooks' professionalism and even to like the rogues, we want to agonize before we find out if they wind up in clover or pushing up daisies.

"Fever" touches all these bases. The Norwegian Empress is not really that great a prize -- lots of tourists and a swell buffet but not much hard cash. However, the crooks know what the ship's owners do not, that it is being used to smuggle $30 million of drug money (31/2 tons of cash) to Colombia, hidden in cartons of condensed milk. The logistics of taking over the ship, offloading the loot and concealing it from the Coast Guard are fascinating but no more so than the crooks themselves, because Rowe cares about his characters.

The book starts with stepbrothers Matt Shannon and Jack Fontana meeting at a bar overlooking a busy harbor in Miami. Life has not gone well for them. Both went into law enforcement. Matt, who relates the story, was FBI but quit after his wife's death from cancer left him too fond of his bourbon. Now he's head of security for the world's largest cruise line, deep in debt and wondering how to salvage his life. Enter ex-DEA agent Jack, fresh out of prison and a man with a plan: " 'So. The plan is to hijack the Norwegian Empress and make it look like terrorism. That's the cover story. What's really going on is old-fashioned piracy.' "

Matt knows he'd be crazy to join this madcap scheme -- but there are also pressures to do it. There is love between the stepbrothers, and, beyond that, Matt owes Jack big-time -- Jack was in prison because he took the rap after Matt shot a man in the crazed aftermath of his wife's death. Now Matt hungers for the new life that his share of the heist's millions can provide. Finally, there's his fascination with Jack's friend Julia, who's 26, gorgeous and a mystery. At first, she seems to be an expensive call girl, then she's maybe a nurse, and in a pinch she's lethal with her weapon of choice, the bow and arrow. She's also the survivor of childhood rape that left her with a highly realistic view of the world.

The rest of the gang includes an ex-Black Panther named Bryant and an old soldier of fortune called Kip: "From what Fontana said, Bryant had antifreeze for blood, and three murder warrants on him in three different states. Kip: a stone killer with more trigger time under his belt than a Ranger platoon." When Matt voices doubts about five of them seizing a cruise ship, Kip reassures him: " 'I took over a whole city in Angola one time with twelve guys and a tank. OK? Trust me, this is a can o' corn.' " But of course it's not. Can o' worms is more like it. There's trouble on the ship and more trouble back in Miami, where some extremely nasty people are hellbent on seizing the $30 million in cash.

When Matt and Julia flee for their lives, they have to decide who they are, in more ways than one. It seems that Matt and his wife, when very young, gave up a child for adoption. Julia was adopted. This had led to a lot of is-she or isn't-she, made all the more troubling when sex rears its inevitable head. Throughout, Rowe maintains a nice balance between the general amorality of the novel and the underlying decency he finds in the stepbrothers and Julia. The story builds to a climax that is dark but no darker than it should be.

Rowe has left journalism and is now working on another novel. Whether his talent is God-given or a byproduct of brain meets train, it shines brightly as his taut little tale comes rolling down the tracks.