THE COLOR OF BLOOD By Brian Moore Dutton. 182 pp. $16.95

BRIAN MOORE'S new novel begins, literally, with a bang: a man and a woman try to assassinate the cardinal primate of an Eastern European country. The man and the cardinal's driver are killed, but the woman gets away. And Cardinal Stefan Bem quickly learns that he can no longer trust, or even identify, his friends.

Bem is taken into "protective custody," apparently by the security police known derisively as "raincoats." He tries to escape, but cannot be certain who his pursuers are or the real reason for his detention. Even a fellow priest, a friend since their days together in Rome, seems to know a bit too much.

On the run, in disguise, the cardinal finds he must deal with terrorists, possible intriguers in the church hierarchy, and a union leader not unlike Lech Walesa. Nor can he forget that the would-be assassin may try again.

Moore's subject, in part, is the plight of a churchman wandering (sometimes literally so) in a perplexing moral and political landscape -- the cardinal's red is bright plumage in the grayness of a totalitarian state. But Moore is also a terrific storyteller, and his new book is, above all, a lean, subtle suspense tale.

Most of Moore's novels (this is his 16th) share certain qualities: an anxiousness about faith and reason, particularly among the Catholics he knows so well; a kind of sadness at lost innocence and the passing of traditions; a detached, sometimes bemused horror at clashes between old and new. The novels also share a great narrative gift and language so delicate that you wonder afterward how he's been able to tell you so much, so well.

Bem, in flight, encounters increasingly alien surroundings: "The station seemed deserted. The arrivals board was blank. . ." Physical details become sinister characteristics: "Sparse blond hair rose like an aureole around the back of his pink skull" or "His spectacles were old-fashioned, with heavy black frames and lenses behind which his eyes seemed large, floating and vague."

The Color of Blood is set in a place that seems very much like modern Poland. But it is also a place of the imagination, where secret meetings are held in VD wards, gypsies live by the river,and church and state are inhabited by people who defy easy categories. For Francis Urban, the prime minister (whose name is, of course, that of the pope who condemned Galileo), "there was no difference between the nation and the State. It was not the national good, but the preservation of the State, that he served." Yet Urban and Bem, who were Jesuit school classmates, form an alliance of convenience.

The cardinal, either cloistered away or moving anonymously in the countryside, is baffled by what the world has become. He understands that he must oppose the regime, yet must not push so hard as to anger the regime's real master, the Soviet Union. Most of all, he understands his allegiance to his vows: "He had been a fifteen-year-old schoolboy when the first Soviet tanks arrived in the streets of the capital, driving the Germans back, block by razed block. While other boys of his generation regretted that they had been too young to fight, he had felt cheated of the honor of suffering imprisonment and abuse in Christ's name.

Bem is a cautious, moral man, absorbed by self-doubt. He senses that the sash he wears, the color of blood, is also the color of modern times, where the violence of the state may be a kind of check against chaos, where patriotism and fanaticism are confused and where suspicion is a way of life. Moore skillfully brings this world alive, complete with twists and moral dilemmas. "I wonder," Bem says at one point. "Are we filling the churches because we love God more than before? Or do we do it out of nostalgia for the past, or, worse, to defy the government? Because if we do . . . then God is mocked."

Brian Moore has always seemed ready to take on any subject. In Catholics (in some ways a prologue to The Color of Blood), a sweet ambivalence settles about the protagonists as papal authority is pitted against adherents of the Latin Mass and other out-of-favor rituals. The Great Victorian Collection has a Canadian history professor literally dreaming into existence a grouping of fabulous antiques in the parking lot of a California motel. The perplexing Cold Heaven examines the plight of a widow whose husband may have returned from the dead.

By such comparisons, The Color of Blood could be judged "lesser" Brian Moore. His fiction, which has brilliantly explored adultery, the supernatural, obsession, guilt and (as in Black Robe) the lives of Jesuits in the 17th-century Canadian wilds, is more conventional here.

But like Graham Greene's "entertainments," and very few others of the political-thriller genre, Moore's new novel does more than it seems to at first glance. It is a book that quietly envelops you and, with rarely a false step, brings you to a conclusion that is startling and just right. As it follows the cardinal on his chilling journey, it also casts a larger light on the secrets of ambition, belief and the doubts of the soul.

Jeffrey A. Frank is a novelist and an editor in the Style section of The Washington Post.