FEW LITERARY phenomena are more peculiar than the Washington novel. Other works of fiction may be set in Detroit or Los Angeles or Hong Kong; their worlds may be limited to the auto business or movie making or the opium trade, but most of them still play by the rules of fiction as a whole.

The hard-core Washington novel is written to different standards and with narrower ends in mind: to reveal (like Safire or Howar) the social detail of what it's like to be a president or a Washington hostess or a White House aide; to praise or (more frequently) defame figures from real political life (compare John Ehrlichman and the brothers Kalb); to beat the drum (like Allen Drury or the Steins pere and fils ) for a political point of view; or, (like so many "insiders" from both press and government), to vent the insights that never found their way into the front-page story or the boss' speech.

At its best, the genre attempts to explain the sources of the political behavior we observe day by day. Billy Lee Brammer did this for Lyndon Johnson in The Gay Place, an honorary Washington novel, although set in Texas; Charles McCarry's elegant thriller, The Tears of Autumn, captured a spiritual truth about the Kennedy years. At its worst, the Washington novel simply dishes up in one more medium the cliches and shallow intepretations we already get in abundance from news reports, columns, and television docu-drama.

Both Les Whitten's and Jules Witcover's books are Washington novels (George Higgins' only happens to be set here), but Whitten's is by far the more successful of the two. To read about his protagonist, Henry Strabico - a famous consumer advocate, now in his forties, who got his start when a big corporation tried to do him wrong and has spread his influence in a thousand directions ever since - is to suspect that we are in for the usual roman a clef. But those who start the novel hoping to find out about Ralph Nader will keep on reading to see what happens to Henry Strabico. Like most Washington novelists, Whitten claims that his characters are not drawn straight from life; unlike most others, he has the skill and inventiveness to create an independent, absorbing figure.

Strabico's life is never dull. Having spent 20 years at the head of the Movement, he is starting to tire of the good fight; but at the urging of his acolytes and his girlfriend, a plump Ohio congresswoman named Maggie Thorensen, he gets himself ready for one last joust against Big Oil. This crusade leads him in directions barely imagined at the outset (rescuing Thorensen from a censure vote in the House, blackmailing a spineless congressman and being subject to humiliating blackmail himself), but none of it - not his collusion with a Mafia chieftain, not being photographed in embarrassing poses with an oil heiress, not even his disgraced exile in Italy and the collapse of his cause - gets Strabico permanently down. His most winning characteristic, which seems to trace back to the author himself, is buoyancy in the face of dark facts; Whitten intends to plumb evil in this book, evil and weakness in all his characters' souls, but his basic tone is light rather than somber. (It is light to the point of cartoonery in the depiction of the unremitting sins of Big Oil, a portrayal that Ida Tarbell might well find one-sided.)

Strabico also resembles a human being more closely than does the average hero of a Washington novel. Such heroes usually have girl friends, for example, who are comely to a fault and ever eager to jump into the sack, but Strabico's first thought, each time he spies his beloved congresswoman, is that she is in danger of growing chubby in the thighs.

In the second half of the book, the plot gets out of control - at one point, Strabico pummels an assassin to death with his hands in the halls of the Capitol - but the book never loses its sparkle and wit. This is not a candidate for the 100 Greatest Works of the West, but Washington novels this smooth and enjoyable are a pleasure to find.

Like Whitten, Witcover is a fine journalist writing fiction on the side; but while Whitten has published half a dozen previous novels, this is Witcover's first. Without meaning to sound cruel, I suspect it will also be his last. While the book's very existence seems to demonstrate the journalist's notion that certain truths are fit only for the pure, clean air of fiction, its content reminds us that good nonfiction is more effective than a weak novel.

The plot concerns a team of political columnists, Michael Webb and Tom Sturdivant. Webb is an aging warhorse, symbol of the old guard; Sturdivant, a fancy-pants youngster who calls himself "journalist" rather than mere reporter. Together they have tasted power (or "clout," as it would be called here); their reports of political corruption in the administration of President Edwin Hacker forced Hacker to resign. But Hacker will not stay buried; he announces a comeback try for reelection and says that his one and only issue will be the loathsomeness of the press. Tom Sturdivant's brother, a smooth, rich senator, decides that the future of enlightened politics rests on his opposing Hacker; he lures Tom out of journalism and into his campaign. Sturdivant is replaced at the column by his former research assistant and mistress, the attractive, ambitious, and highly sexed Nora Williams, a woman as eager as Becky Sharp for the main chance, if somewhat less subtle and restrained. She sees her chance for glory, and Webb glimpses a success that will sustain him through mid-life anxieties, in a tip that makes candidate Hacker look like a crook once again. Things do not work quite the way anyone - except Hacker - might have hoped, and the protagonists end the book picking up the pieces.

Witcover is skirting worthy themes here - the lore of the press, the feel of campaigns (the best parts of this book are the descriptions, no doubt heartfelt and authentic, of life as a traveling man), the antipathy between press and politician, the hatred of public for press. But there is almost nothing he could not have discussed more effectively in nonfiction, since the basic tools of the novel are awkward in his hands. The dialogue runs to phrases like "You're g ving me the greatest opportunity of my life, and I can't blow it"; one character is actually described as taking "his politics, his politicians, his liquor, and his women straight." I doubt I will be the only reader who sees through the crucial plot twist with one third of the book still to go. To wish that Witcover had tried to make these points in nonfiction is not to ridicule this effort, but only to lament that the journalistic concept of fiction as "higher" calling draws so many people astray.

George V. Higgins's A Year or So with Edgar has more explicit pretensions to Washington relevance than the other two; the jacket copy says it "offers more insight into both men and marriage and the real workings of Washington, D.C., than shelfloads of books of nonfiction." That is deceptive advertising, for the book, like all his novels since The Friends of Eddie Coyle, mainly displays Higgins' admirable style and ear. Much of the book consists of lengthy monologues by the Edgar of the title, a Boston newspaperman who visits the narrator, Peter Quinn, in Washington. Quinn is a Washington lawyer, and here is journalist Edgar on their respective professions:

""Now that," he said, "is why people in my line of work have so much trouble understanding people in your line of work. Because what we do is tell everything we know as soon as we know it and sometimes even before we know it. When a reporter goes and starts asking questions to a Washington lawyer - by the time the reporter gets here, he's probably pretty good, or he wouldn't be here in the first place, and he knows all these laywers that he met in Des Moines, there, that're always snuggling up to the newspapers and buying guys drinks so their latest miracle'll get good play in the AMs and it always does because we're so easy - what he thinks he has got by the tail is the same sort of animal he had penned up in the County Courthouse in Abilene.... You Washington guys, the last thing you want is your name in the papers.... When a lawyer in this town gets his name in the paper, it means he made a mistake and has to do the honorable thing and shoot himself.""

Because there is so little plot to get in the way of these soliloquys (Edgar finds a new girlfriend; Peter, like nearly all the other men in the book, breaks up with his wife; the children grow), and because the same kind of dialogue comes out of all the characters' mouths, you have to be very fond of George Higgins's style to stay the course. As one of his longtime fans, I had had enough this time half way through; those with keener appetite may find greater reward. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Saul Lambert for The Washington Post