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London Match : by Len Deighton (Knopf: $17.95; 407 pp.)

February 16, 1986|MARK SCHORR | Schorr's fifth novel, a spy thriller, will be published this fall by St. Martin's Press. and

The battle began in "Berlin Game." It heated up in "Mexico Set," and it concludes, appropriately enough, in "London Match." Rudyard Kipling first called espionage "the Great Game," and no one is more adept at providing a fictional play-by-play than Len Deighton.

British Intelligence agent Bernard Samson, like his Biblical namesake, has been betrayed by a woman. His wife has gone over to the KGB and is doing an admirable job orchestrating their anti-British efforts. Samson, understandably, is viewed unfavorably by his superiors.

Then a courier is captured, a defector begins to talk, and Samson thinks he may have evidence that one of his superiors is a KGB mole.

The British intelligence muckety-mucks are an unappealing gaggle of venal, petty, manipulative backbiters. Revealing any of them as a traitor could make Samson a hero, as well as provide personal satisfaction. One of the suspects (shades of George Smiley) may even have had an affair with Samson's wife.

But perhaps the evidence is false, and the KGB is running one of the disinformation operations it does so well. Then the dedicated Samson will be pulling down his own temple without crushing a Philistine.

Deighton gives a skilled and believable portrait of Samson, showing him with family, friends and the new woman in his life. Samson maintains his professional cool, but there is a sense that emotions are repressed, and not nonexistent, as with too many other spy heroes.

There's an ample dosage of spies and counterspies, agents and double-agents, treachery, adultery, murder, a confrontation with Samson's traitorous spouse and a shoot-'em-up climax.

Over the last 24 years, Deighton has produced some of the most enjoyable spy fiction. His better known works include "The Ipcress File," "Funeral in Berlin" and "XPD."

Deighton's approach has grown more sophisticated since his earlier works, where he sometimes bogged down in technical minutiae, providing picayune details that all but destroyed the narrative. His more recent writings offer a deft balance of fact, scene setting and the who-can-we-trust paranoia that makes spy novels engrossing.

His work often has the same tone as John Le Carre--bleak and menacing Berlin, bleak and bureaucratically treacherous London--but his prose is nowhere near as dense. His violence is a necessary part of the plot and not the savored cruelty that Ian Fleming employed. The conspiracies that impel the reader forward are realistic, unlike the grandiose schemes of Robert Ludlum novels. You won't find still another neo-Nazi conspiracy to take over the world, just the ruthless gamesmanship of espionage professionals.

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