THE SPY STORY By John G. Cawelti and Bruce A. Rosenberg University of Chicago Press 259 pp. $24.95

AT THE BACK of The Spy Story, a study by two respected academic critics of popular fiction, there is a list of the 25 greatest spy stories "in rank order." At the top stands Graham Greene's The Human Factor, followed by John le Carre''s Quest for Karla trilogy; the rest of the list is dotted with other titles by these two masters, along with novels by Eric Ambler, Adam Hall, Len Deighton, Thomas Gifford, Frederick Forsyth and Robert Littell. It's a good list, and the fact that all but two of the writers included are still alive, still active, makes clear just how much the spy novel is a reflection of our time.

Cawelti and Rosenberg begin their study by considering the psychology of the clandestine -- the appeal of invisibility, the fascination with disguise, pleasure in the secret exercise of power -- and conclude that the most powerful element in spy fiction is the theme of betrayal. They examine the schizophrenic life of the spy or double agent, constantly shifting his stance between apparent innocence and secret knowledge. In the best academic fashion, they also establish a three-part "cycle of clandestinity": 1) Some cause requires action beyond the bounds of law; 2) a secret group is formed that cuts off its members from ordinary society; and 3) some member of the group "begins to feel isolated not only from ordinary society, but from other members of the group . . . He signals his complete isolation by becoming a double agent."

To flesh out these abstractions Cawelti and Rosenberg establish the morphology, the patterns of action, of the spy story by focusing on a clutch of major writers. John Buchan -- best known for The Thirty-Nine Steps -- represents the staunch heroic amateur who takes on the enemies, often swarthy foreign devils, of the empire. In early Eric Ambler and Graham Greene the hero is an ordinary man caught up in a conspiracy he doesn't understand, desperately trying to survive and defeat some 1930s style corporate evil: arms merchants, international communism, the Nazi threat. The James Bond novels represent a return to the gentlemanly ideal of Buchan, but with a touch of irony and a new sexual freedom. Finally, in le Carre' and the later Greene we reach the heart of the matter: betrayal.

It is in this realm of paranoia and alienation that the spy represents all our secret selves. The activities of Smiley's Circus seem only one step beyond the bureaucratic power struggles, the covert in-fighting for influence, of any large organization. Despite its unremittingly academic tone, The Spy Story brings the secret war all the way back home.