Sherlock Holmes would have scoffed at it, Phillip Marlowe would have sneered and Columbo would have cringed.

But if two special FBI agents have their way, catching criminals 21st-Century style will be done by an IBM 380 computer, not a rumpled gumshoe or hard-boiled detectives rounding up the usual suspects.

What began as a research project two years ago at the FBI Academy in Quantico has developed into a successful investigative tool using computerized psychological profiles to help local polic pinpoint potential suspects.

It is the only program of its kind in the world, its directors said.

"Mostly, we were looking for patterns," said special FBI agent John Douglas. "We wanted to develop insights into the criminal mind."

Douglas, 35, and special agent Bob Ressler, 43, are criminal psychologists and instructors at the academy, working in a tiny basement office of the obscure Behavior Science Unit. On the cluttered desk is a pile of photographs, gruesome crime scenes in graphic color. On the coffee table a book: "Murder and Madness."

Two years ago, Ressler and Douglas set out to interview the country's most notorious mass murderers and assassins to find similarities between the personality of the offender and the offense.

A crime, they say, reveals the personality of the criminal in the same way furnishings in a home reflect the characteristics of the homeowner.

The two are tight-lipped about their findings, but they occasionally offer grim glimpses of the netherworld they have explored.

"For example," Ressler said, playfully setting a skull on a stack of files, "mass murderers are egomaniacs."

Their backgrounds are also similar. "Mostly, they come from unhappy homes, and experienced a troubled childhood," Douglas said. The two agents have also found that mass murderers tend to be transient, paranoid individuals with low self-esteem. The killers also tend to visit grave sites of their victims, surreptitiously attend a victim's funeral, and are fascinated by law enforcement. They often take jobs as security guards.

"The majority [of killers] are psychopathic," Douglas said, "with a great deal of repressed anger and hostility."

It took years of reasearch to unlock the secrets of the criminal mind. For that, Ressler and Douglas went to the experts, two dozen prison inmates who could well be the "Who's Who" of American crime: David R. Berkowitz, New York's "Son of Sam" killer, Charles Manson, Richard Speck, Arthur Bremmer, Sirhan Sirhan, Lynette (Squeaky) Fromme and Sara Jane Moore.

Their most rewarding interview was with Berkowitz, who they found "articulate." The most surprising was Charles Manson, whom Ressler described as "a delightful character."

"Socially Manson would fit into any group of young people," he said. "He tells you what you want to hear. He's charismatic, but very manipulative."

Upcoming subjects include mass murderer John Wayne Gacy and "Hillside Strangler" Kenneth Bianci.

"Twenty-five years ago, all we had was fingerprinting," Ressler said.

But is the world ready for mindprinting?

"It's very new and innovative," said Dr. James Kavanaugh of Chicago, one of the country's foremost forensic psychiatrists. "I think some local jurisdictions aren't going to welcome this with open arms, though. It certainly is different from pounding the pavements and following leads."

But the agents said they haven't run into any resistance yet. "I've found total support for it," said Ressler.

Once local police have exausted all leads in a homicide, they turn the case over to Ressler and Douglas. The most recent one they've been called on for help is the deaths or disappearance of 14 black children in Atlanta.

Ressler and Douglas review the crime scene, often traveling to the site, and sift through autopsy reports, detailed photographs of the body and anything else the police can provide.

Based on this data, and other general information -- some of it computerized, the rest stored in their heads -- the two agents are able to provide a profile of the killer, including age, race, sex, marital status, education level, arrest history, body type, occupation, location of residence in relation to the crime scene and certain personality traits.

They have already drawn up a profile for the Atlanta police, but will not discuss the case.

"It's amazing," Ressler said.

"It's fascinating," Douglas said.

Are they ever wrong?

"We've been wrong," Ressler said, "but not major wrongs."

So far, the program has had a 90 percent success rate in matching predicted characteristics with those of the apprehended criminal, according to the agents.

"The psychological community is amazed by it," Douglas said. "They can't understand how we're able to do this."

Much of their success is due to the cooperation of the two dozen subjects they interviewed. Ressler and Douglas made detailed case histories of the inmates before the interviews, which often lasted seven hours and, in some cases, took place on death row.

"Psychiatry has buried these people," Douglas said. "They don't receive and aren't going to receive a lot of psychiatric care."

"It's dirty work," Ressler said. "Psychiatrists don't want to do this kind of thing."

Based on the subjects' answers to a 57-page questionnaire that included questions ranging from bedwetting to sexual deviation, family, school, military, marital and criminal histories, victim selection and crime scene, Ressler and Douglas were able to find common denominators between the psychological make-up of the criminal and the psychological "clues" the crime scene revealed.

"We're dealing with criminals," said Dr. A. Nicholas Groth, psychologist and director of the Sex Offense Program at the Connecticut Correction Institute in Somers, Conn. "But we're also dealing with people whose criminal behavior is reflective of psychological problems."

The program focused initially on sexual homicides, mass murders and "serial" murder -- murders spaced out over a period of time -- in America. Now requests for psychological profiles are coming in from Canada, Australia, West Germany and England, where Ressler and Douglas traveled last summer. They provided British police with some psychological help on the "Yorkshire Ripper," Britain's knife-wielding killer who has stalked the countryside since 1975 and claimed his 13th female victim last week.

The number of cases hitting their cluttered desks have doubled since last year, with an average of 10 homicides a week. "By next year," said Douglas, "it will probably be four times that."

Ressler and Douglas eventually hope to computerize crime scenes so clues can be fed directly to Quantico, where a computer printout of a typical offender can be instantly analyzed.

"It's somewhat artsy now," Douglas said. "We'd like to become more scientific."

The agents point out that the police cannot get an indictment based on a profile. Nor have the profiles been introduced as evidence in any court cases so far, although Ressler says the two men eventually expect to be called to testify as expert witnesses.

Aside from the psychological profiling, the program is also using biorhythms and psycholinguistics, which reveal character traits from a criminal's writing or speech patterns.

Ressler and Douglas say they don't have nightmares. Also, their wives never ask what went on at the office that day. "They don't want to hear about it," said Ressler.

Have the two FBI agents been profiled themselves?

"No," Douglas said laughing. "We know we're crazy."