Despite the publisher's disclaimer, Daily News editor Maeder's lively and thorough profile of the square-jawed detective is the perfect tie-in to this summer's big-screen version of the venerable comic strip. The method to Maeder's pop-cult mania is, however, a bit odd. Interspersed throughout his conventional history of Chester Gould's world-famous strip is a dramatized account of its hero. Hardly a substitute for reprints of the funny pages themselves, Maeder's narrative provides useful introductions to all of Tracy's antagonists, sidekicks, and female friends. Gould's bad guys brought a new level of cruelty to the generally corny comic pages--scenes of physical torture, suicide, and intense violence have brought out society's watchdogs time and again throughout the strip's near-50-year history. Inspired by the brave exploits of Eliot Ness, Tracy introduced classic procedural sleuthing to the comics, and during the Thirties and Forties--Tracy made his first appearance in 1931--Gould's cop-turned-G-man captured the American imagination by adhering to a simple code: Crime doesn't pay and criminals never win. This didn't preclude Gould from creating some of the most intriguing villains in popular culture, a rogues' gallery of grotesques, misfits, and shysters. And there've always been plenty of the classic 1940's-style ""blonde broads"" as well. Gould's general con. tempt for criminal rights and pantywaist lawyers didn't fare too well in the age of Miranda, and the strip suffered a decline in the Sixties, with Tracy taking his crime-stopping to outer space. Since Gould's death in 1977, the strip has revived, somewhat by returning to its roots under new creative direction. One needn't agree that Gould is ""one of the great storytellers of the twentieth century"" to accept Maeder's notion that Tracy is ""a fundamental component of the American popular consciousness."" The 250 illustrations (unseen) will no doubt supply the missing ingredient in Maeder's colorful prose.