THE COMINGS AND GOINGS of spies, their employers and their prey are now starting to appear with the additional refinement -- if that is the proper word -- of terrorism.

The novel of terrorism is quicker and more brutal in doing what spy fiction only hints may lurk by way of violence in the hearts of spooks. Life is reduced, the gloomy suggestion is made, to a constant battle between the skilled but outnumbered protectors of the good and the single-minded, unyielding terrorist groups out to kill unsuspecting civilians and thereby crudely shaped political destiny.

Yet even this most modern of approaches to political persuasion remains human; and it is for the mistakes which are the sole acknowledgements of their humanity that we come to appreciate dedicated terrorists like the East German, Bruno, in Paul Henissart's Margin of Error. Bruno's patron, a Hungarian-born Swiss banker, complains: "When I recruited him, he was controllable. A hard-nosed, opportunistic ex-paratrooper adrift in Spain: there was nothing complicated about his character. He had good sides, too, which I respected. But give a man like that ideological motivation, funds and weapons, and you gamble with diaster." Despite his employer's complaints, Bruno leads us a good and elusive race for some time before the CIA uncovers the full audacity of his plan to assassinate a major world leader coming to Switzerland for medical treatment at a fancy, well-guarded private clinic.

Most of the scheme is unraveled by Guthrie, the agent who never falters in his loyalty despite insufficient motivation, funds and weapons. Marie-Christine, the beautiful Frenchwoman swept up by chance into the thick of things, is a captive to both sides; when right finally prevails, she emerges, strangely unmarred and unmoved by all that has transpired around her. Though we are never in real doubt about where her heart lies, the aims of her terrorist captor are undercut and threatened by his unexpected susceptibility to her glowing goodness. All in all, Henissart has concocted a capable and entertaining story.

The dead hand of past villainies slaps into the present in The Regensburg Legacy when a Nazi laboratory and its supply of deadly chemical and biological agents are discovered intact underneath a former Wehrmacht base in West Germany. Quickly and secretly deep-sixed in Africa, the existence of these substances threatens to become an embarrassment to the Western allies at a time when, by coincidence, a West Germany firm is testing rockets in a remote part of the same African country. A retired CIA agent, Joe Dugger, is dragged in because someone wants to kill him for his knowledge of these matters. It is principally through his eyes that we see shady businessmen, African politicians and revolutionaries, together with a handful of CIA and FBI operatives, clash, plot and move through Zurich, New York, Moscow, Paris, Germany and Africa.

It is a suspense-filled process by which Dugger discovers the full extent of the forces arrayed against him, and it manages to banish the lurking thought that there cannot be so many people simultaneously connected by their interest in rocketry, nerve gas, Central African politics and their varied applications to one another. The loneliness and paranoia of the retired field man is especially vivid. There is a satisfying sense of achievement and of order regained at the end of the book when -- with most of the usual suspects taken out of circulation -- the deadly cache in Africa appears to have a long, but peaceful, future in the geological fault in which it has been placed.

Kenneth Royce's The Third Arm, by contrast, has an austere travel budget and is set in and around London, where a group of extremely unsavory terrorists has assembled from around the world. At the direction of Her Majesty's Government, Ross Gibbs, fresh from cladestine work in Northern Ireland, stages a killing in order to pose credibly as a terrorist himself and thus infiltrate the ring. The subsequent level of trust afforded him fluctuates maddeningly in order to permit the author to keep Gibbs in the picture while preventing him from ever getting a very good look at it until enough pages have been filled to justify bringing matters to a close.

Even after discovering the terrorists' intention to blow up the Concorde carrying Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Schmidt (switching to TWA would be to give in to the terrorists, don't you know) the police demonstrate a remarkable if not incredible inability to detect and defuse the bomb. Equally inexplicable is the ability of the terrorists to carry out their plans when many opportunities to thwart them are missed by the police or the author. An author does not have a duty to catch crooks, but he should apprehend awkward loopholes in the plot to prevent them from irritating the reader.

5 Minutes to Midnight displays its author's vast knowledge of Middle Eastern terrorists, their weapons and goals, Western intelligence services and the countermeasures which they deploy in order to curb a level of insane behavior which, the author implies, we haven't fully come to appreciate in the United States with its low incidence of terrorism and its pilloried intelligence service.

The goal of the terrorists is to seize a nuclear facility in the United States in order to recover from the defeat and loss of prestige suffered at Entebbe. Despite its persuasive familiarity with recent history and with the trappings of both terrorist and intelligence agency, the book suffers from thin characterization and a leaden, insensitive style of writing which, like a bureaucratic manual, is so lacking in subtlety and appropriate guile that it tells (painfully) more than the reader needs or wants to know. Sending someone "to a better world" is followed by an explanation: "Among Israeli intelligence veterans, sending someone to 'a better world' . . . [was a ] euphemism for eliminating enemy agents."

The real terror here was not intended by the author.