SINCE BRIAN MOORE'S first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, was published in 1955, he has produced a long list of books--including The Luck of Ginger Coffey, The Emperor of Ice Cream, The Great Victorian Collection, and The Temptation of Eileen Hughes--that unfailingly provide thoughtful entertainment. His new novel, Cold Heaven, makes it easy to understand why Graham Greene once called him "my favorite living novelist."

Moore's interests, even in his comic mood, have always tended toward the dark side of human events-- terrible temptations, for example, that force a character's will to the edge of a cliff. In earlier novels, he has dealt directly with the surreal and the supernatural--in The Great Victorian Collection, a young man awakens in a California motel to find that he has dreamed into existence a huge assortment of Victorian objets d'art, and in Fergus, the Irish-born writer of the title must confront a motley gang of ghosts from his past--but in most of Brian Moore's writing, one is always aware of larger, and darker, worlds lurking just out of view.

In Cold Heaven, the world of the supernatural arrives in a burst of brilliant light that dazzles--and awes and frightens--the reader as well as the characters.

Marie Davenport and her doctor husband, Alex, are vacationing in Nice. While Marie sits in a pedal-boat and Alex swims along beside her in the warm Mediterranean, Marie is planning to tell him she is leaving him for another man, Daniel. In what appears to be a freak accident, Alex is struck by a motorboat. He is rushed to a hospital, and Marie must deal with the crisis and the added burden of being alone in a foreign country. The doctors inform her that Alex has died. Marie views the body. Her husband is undeniably dead. The next day, when she visits the hospital with a man from the American consulate, she is told that the body is missing. She returns to her hotel room. Alex's money, passport, plane ticket and clothing are missing from the room. The airline tells her that Dr. Davenport changed his reservation. She reaches the airport in time to see his flight take off. This much happens in the first 34 pages of the book.

But there is much more going on here than the macabre mystery. Alex's accident took place exactly one year after a strange and frightening experience Marie had on a cliffside walk in Carmel, California, where a young girl appeared to her, announced that she was the "Virgin Immaculate," and commanded that a shrine be built on the spot. Marie, raised by nuns but hating all that is Catholic, has spoken of this to no one and adamantly refuses to credit the event as a genuine apparition. As a result, she now moves in a world where she feels, convincingly, that they are out to get her, that guns are trained on her from rooftops and even from the blue sky itself, a world in which "nothing was coincidental" and even "the butterflies were not innocent."

Seemingly random circumstances begin to form an inexorable pattern, and Marie, Daniel, and Alex himself (now zombie-like, "a sort of Lazarus," wavering between medical death and spurious life), are drawn back, like puppets, to the fateful scene in Carmel. Marie, a hostile and unwilling witness, struggles against the compliance with divine will that she feels is being forced on her. Surrounded by snooping priests and ominous nuns, she is dragged along willy-nilly until the conclusion of the book, an ending both ironic and shocking.

Cold Heaven is that most desirable sort of novel, one that keeps your hands taut on the book and your breath held tight in your chest. At the same time, the entertainment is of a very high order, filled with ideas given powerful dramatic form. Moore's intense exploration of Marie Davenport's dilemma (one of faith and conscience as well as survival and sanity), crystallizes the plight of an ordinary, modern person--a sinner, as it were-- faced with extraordinary events, specifically, a miracle. If you or I were suddenly, and unwillingly, vouchsafed a glimpse of the Blessed Virgin ourselves, we would no doubt feel the same way she does.

Brian Moore is, as he has always been, a masterly writer, and Cold Heaven is word-perfect. The style is so transparent, so casually brilliant, that the events it narrates seem to be happening in real life, without the intrusion of paper and ink. Moore can paint a character in an easy stroke or two, and it is his believable characters, as well as his stunning subject matter and fascinating ideas, that give this book such tremendous suspense. And it is genuine suspense, the kind that grows out of real concern for the people involved, and out of a need to know what happens, because what happens will be hugely important. CAPTION: Picture, Brian Moore, Copyright (c) by Hans Wendler/The Image Bank