By Eric Zencey
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
375 pp., $24
Great fiction often places a small story against the backdrop of a big one. In ''Gone With the Wind,'' for example, Scarlett O'Hara's relationship with Rhett Butler is set against the larger drama of the Civil War.
What Eric Zencey does in his first novel is similar, if more cerebral, and no less satisfying.
His protagonist is Henry Adams, the distinguished historian and descendant of presidents who still mourns the death of his beloved Clover, a talented, chronically depressed woman who killed herself seven years earlier. As the story begins, Zencey's Adams is looking for meaning in the great cathedrals of Europe.
He is looking for love, though he does not know it at the time, and finds it in Miriam Talbott, a painter. ''Some burden in his life had microscopically shifted,'' Adams thinks as he sits next to Miriam on the train to Paris. ''It wasn't that he had achieved contentment, no, but that the prospect before him now held that possibility.''
Then Miriam disappears, and as Adams searches for his new love, he finds himself drawn into the raveled workings of the French Panama Canal Company, the doomed enterprise that expired in a welter of bribery, blackmail, murder, and suicide before American interests prevailed. Miriam Talbott has confidential information about key figures in the matter, information that puts her life at risk.
The real-life Henry Adams is best known for ''Mont-Saint-Michel'' and ''Chartres'' and ''The Education of Henry Adams,'' books that chart the fracturing of universal order and the rising chaos of modern times. The organic, unified world of the Middle Ages is no more, Adams argues. That world has been shot through with the lightning bolts of science, so that we see more than we used to, although one of the things we see is how little we actually know.
The more Adams investigates, the more he is led on from one address, one photograph, one hastily scribbled note to another. He peels back layers of identity, and those he thinks he knows often turn out to be someone else entirely. It is as though the ''Panama affair was a sodden clump of jungle soil he could see around, but whose substance, held together by a thousand tiny roots, was opaque.''
Unavoidably, Adams peers so closely at the chaotic events unfolding in front of him that he becomes enmeshed in them. The detective becomes the detected, and, like many a fictional character who becomes too involved in the affairs of police and criminals, he becomes an object of pursuit by both groups.
Zencey's ear for dialogue is off at times, and characters occasionally shout lines at each other as improbable as, ''One of you will know the justice of the law!''
Overall, though, his style is intelligent and fresh, and his Adams thinks the way we might imagine the real one to have thought. In one scene, for example, Adams looks at some of the corrupt men behind the Panama Canal scandal who are ''waiting for cabs, looking ahead to an appointment at the club or to dinner with their families, their souls small, wrinkled and loose within them, rattling about like a raisin in an otherwise empty cup, too small to feel the forces that might act upon it.''
Adams's own mentality is quite otherwise, of course. Eric Zencey does a bang-up job of describing one of the great minds of history as it both solves a crime and explains the contemporary world to itself.