THE YEAR IS 1973, when Western leaders seem

determined to give every advantage to the Soviets. The city is West Berlin, where so many agents are at work that even the most private of phones is a party line. The narrator is Therrick, a lonely independent mercenary who worries about gaining weight and aging, is full of despair at the stupidity of the West.

We are back in the bizarre world of the spy novel, which would seem as much pure invention as a genre like science fiction, except that its writers insist it exists beneath our very noses. The situation in this case is straightforward enough. A British agent is being held by the West Germans, who claim he is a spy for the Soviets. They intend to swap him to the East Germans for one of their own men. A multitude of diplomatic problems are involved, but the British know they don't want their man to go to the Soviets. They hire Therrick to see that he doesn't.

The players in this drama seem stock characters even to a reviewer who doesn't read much spy fiction. The politics are reactionary, and the treatment of women offensive: one is a sexy playmate, one a drab long-suffering wife, and one a whore. The whore is treated nastily, as if she deserves it. There is rather too much nastiness in this novel, including several prolonged scenes of interrogation through torture.

All that may matter little enough once the first corpse is discovered; the novel moves rapidly from one surprise to another and the reader continues anxiously toward the denouement. What at first seems a charmingly bucolic scene toward the end--Therrick meets with two Soviet agents, and for once the author seems interested in fleshing out his characters as human beings--reverts instead to a long political sermon in which it is revealed that virtually all the problems in the West are the result of a Soviet plot. Fortunately, a few surprises are reserved for the final pages. Theodore Wilden obviously has a political point to make, but I suspect that most readers will be more impressed by his ability to create suspenseful situations.