Flamboyant characters acting goofy mark this debut, which pits middle-aged Henry Scruggs, a low-level State Department functionary on loan to the Smithsonian, against two sets of thieves--both determined to steal the ton-and-a-half gold statue that is the centerpiece of the about-to-open exhibition celebrating the sesquicentennial of little-known Indian nationalist K.V. Chandra. Which group took it? And how did they manage to move it? And did they assist wacky Violet Strauss, the exhibit curator, to her death? As Henry tries to deal with office temps, government grant applications, the talentless nephew of Bhagat Gupta, a shifty Indian diplomat, hookah sessions with Violet and her chums, lock- outs of his jealous lawyer girlfriend Phoebe (who is soon off to India to learn more about Chandra, et al.), and almost lethal asthma attacks, he wends his way from one end of the Smithsonian to the other and discovers, en route, the Tiber, now flowing through the Institution's underground tunnels--and a nifty way to float away one-and-a-half tons. Much slapstick humor, feisty battling between the sexes, arch commentary on the running of institutions, and a so-so puzzle. A respectable, albeit eccentric, first effort.