Morris Philipson's second novel is dedicated "For Iris Murdoch with gratitude." At first glance there appears to be no similarity at all, let alone debt, between these two writers, other than an apparently compulsive use of coincidence in their plots. Murdoch's novels ar English, aristocratic, Jacobean in their preoccupation with bizarre and often violent sexual relationships. The Wallpaper Fox is American, middle class, and suburban in its domesticity. But it is soon evident that Philipson too is of that species of writer, rather rare these days, for whom characters and plot, however interesting or intricate, are quite subordinate to moral issues, paramount and explicit.

Awareness of this is gradual since Philipson writes of "nice" people who love their families, relish art and sport, take pride in their work and homes, and live respectable, orderly lives. There are here no Furies or Grand Guignol. Their sins (a word they would find archaic or pretentious) are white lies, victimless crimes, or inadvertent injuries, all easily rationalized and beyond legal prosecution. The author's low-keyed skill is apparent in the first section; he engages our sympathy for his hero, Henry Warner, so adroitly that we are hardly aware of Henry's first suave pecadillo which, after all, seems to hurt no one but the IRS. But this minor bit of cheating soon emerges as part of a pattern of self-indulgence, vanity, pleasure in excitement and above all deception that riddles the lives of Henry, his upright wife Kate, their son Jonathan and all their impeccable associates. Eventually all the skeletons are trotted out into the open through a series of coincidences which seem naive and amateurish in so neat and realistic a novel of manners. But in fact, as in Murdoch's novels, these coincidences are the writer's signposts to direct our attention to the significance and inevitability of ethical imperatives; morality spits out mere plausibility of plot. Philipson is more optimistic than Murdoch; when confronted with the issues and alterntives, his characters take their medicine with good grace. But Philipson is more sentimental - and less convincing - since that medicine seems to heal with little bitter taste, and with no fatal side effects. (Scribner's, $7.95)

Audrey C. Foote