Hidden somewhere beneath the gray pinstripe exterior of the foreign service may lurk seething passions. Behind the razor-creased trousers and the immaculate collars may lie profound human emotions and understanding. But Harris Greene fails to discover them in this new novel. Rather, he approximates them, as if filing a report based on dunious intelligence.

The story is neat, well-paced and cleanly written Greene is himself a veteran of the service and his description of its workings is confident and detailed. His characters are well defined, even plausible, yet somehow uninvolving; there to be seen, not felt. The whole work manages to be thoroughly competent, without ever being compelling.

The protagonist, Larry Friburn, is a senior foreign service officer who is about to be made ambassador to Mali, a hardship post but his own embassy nonetheless. Friburn has always played the right games, personally and professionally. (Ultimately there seems to be little difference.) He is married to the daughter of an ambassador and her relationship with a key undersecretary is conveniently affectionate. The appointment looks like "a piece of cake," as one character puts it. But the finagling and outright vindictiveness of a powerful congressman blocks Friburn's nomination every tried and true premise of bureaucratic loyalty.

The problem is that bureaucratic intrigue, at least as Greene handles it, is rather drab. One discovers, and hardly doubts that it is true, that the interior of the foreign service is just as grey as its exterior, only not so well pressed. (Doubleday, $6.95)