JOHN LE CARRE'S 10th novel finds him in surroundings at once fimilar and unaccustomed. Its primary setting is Europe and its action revolves around the workings of intelligence and counter-intelligence; this is the territory of George Smiley, and as usual it is a great pleasure to be there with le Carre as the guide. But the novel's central character is a woman and its warring powers are Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization; this is a new point of view for le Carre, and a departure from the East-West clashes of the Cold War that have provided the focus for his earlier work.

It doesn't make a bit of difference. The Little Drummer Girl is, in all the important respects, quintessential le Carre. At its most immediate and gratifying level, it tells a satisfyingly complex but not bewildering story that moves with the deliverate speed of le Carre in full command. Readers who like their fiction to keep pace with the headlines will appreciate the subtlety with which le Carre explores the psychological and political issues at stake in the conflict over Palestinian settlement. Most rewardingly, like the masterful Smily novels The Little Drummer Girl examines serious questions and themes in a thoughtful, provocative way: not merely the conflict between illusion and reality that is a constant in le Carre's fiction, but also the shock of recognition that occurs when a child of the Western middle class encounters the terrible realities of life as it is experienced by the rest of the world.

To be sure, as is occasionally the case with le Carre the reader must be willing to suspend a measure of disbelief. Those who insist on absolute plausibility are unlikely to accept his operative conceit: that a seemingly featherbrained young British actress, a gentile, can be cajoled into taking on an assignment for Israeli intelligence that will gravely endanger her life. Like many pampered children of the middle class, she is given to "romantic, if brief, patronage" of fashionable causes: "a passionate opponent of apartheid . . ., a militant pacifist, a Sufist, a nuclear marcher, an anti-vivisectionist, and, until she went back to smoking again, a champion of campaigns to eliminate tobacco from theaters and on the public underground." There is, at least at first meeting, nothing about her to suggest that she is capable of passionate conviction or personal risk or an appreciation of moral ambiguity; it is to le Carre's great credit that he is able to expose, slowly and meticulously, the "bright, creative and under-used" woman beneath the silly exterior -- and it is because he is able to do this that The Little Drummer Girl is a novel of genuine distinction.

Her name is Charmian, "but she was known to everyone as "Charlie" and often as "Charlie the Red" in deference to the color of her hair and to her somewhat crazy radical stances, which were her way of caring for the world and coming to grips with its injustices." She is a member of "a rackety troupe of young British acting people" which is performing on the Greek island of Mykonos when she beomes attracted to a mysterious man whom she knows as Joseph -- he refuses to reveal his actual name -- and whose very mystery is a powerful lure. He is in fact an Israeli agent, working under an equally mysterious fellow named Kurtz, engaged in a complicated operation to destroy from within a small, murderous network of Palestinian terrorists. His immediate assignment is to engage the services of Charlie, who Kurtz believes can act as bait to draw out the leader of the terrorists, Khalil. An acting job, indeed, is what Kurtz offers her:

"The biggest part you ever had in your life, the most demanding, the most difficult, surely the most dangerous, and surely the most important. And I don't mean money. You can have money galore, no problem, name your figure. . . . The part we have in view for you combines all your talents, Charles, human and professional. Your wit. Your excellent memory. Your intelligence. Your courage. But also that extra human quality to which I already referred. Your warmth. We chose you, Charlie. We cast you. We looked at a big field, many candidates from many countries. We came up with you and that's why you're here."

What persuades her is in part the excitement of an adventure in espionage ("to the uninitiated, the secret world is of itself attractive") and, perhaps in larger part, the challenge that Kurtz poses to her convictions. "Charlie," he tells her, "there are people out there who will never get to watch the play, never even know it's running, yet who will owe you for as long as they live. Innocent people. The ones you've always cared about, tried to speak for, march for, help." In part, too, she agrees to sign on because of Joseph, whom she loves "without shame and without hope." His mission, though, is not to love her but to create an elaborate fiction in her past, a fiction involving a Palestinian named Michel who is Khalil's worshipful younger brother and whom the Israelis have captured in an ingenious maneuver; the employment of this fiction to deceive and entrap the terrorists is the pivot upon which the plot turns.

This may seem excessively neat: an actress enticed to play out a fiction on the stage of life. But any potential the situation may offer for the obvious is defused by the absolute plausibility with which le Carre manages to invest it. It is possible for fiction to become reality, he is saying, and once that happens who is to say precisely what "reality" is? Toward the end, as Charlie goes deeper and deeper "into the dark" of her mission, reality and fiction become fused into something that is at once terrifying the illuminating. She is in a Palestinian camp:

"She was entering by degrees exactly that condition which Joseph had predicted. She was being educated to tragedy, and the tragedy absolved her of the need to explain herself. She was a blinkered rider, being conveyed through events and emotions too great for her to encompass, into a land where merely to be present was to be part of a monstrous injustice. She had joined the victims and was finally reconciled to her deceit. As each day passed, the fiction of her pretended allegiance to Michel became more firmly based in fact, while her allegiance to Joseph, if not a fiction, survived only as a secret mark upon her soul."

Her innocence has been destroyed: "she had no stomach any more -- and, worse, no understanding -- for what passed for paid in Western middle-class society." What she once thought were realities are now revealed as illusions; the new realities she has encountered are so awful as to leave her benumbed and stunned. Her life will never be the same, but it will go on -- and she will not be alone. This at least is as it seems, though the possibility that le Carre has confronted her with one final fiction, one last cruel joke, cannot be dismissed. But no matter what interpretation each reader chooses to put on the novel's final pages, it remains that The Little Drummer Girl is a work of enormous power and artistry: no mere "entertainment," no mere "espionage novel," but fiction on the grand scale.