THE ICARUS AGENDA By Robert Ludlum Random House. 677 pp. $19.95

FIVE WEALTHY business and government elders have seized upon their self-importance and used their computers and investigators to identify the best potential leader for the United States. They now plan secretly to engineer his nomination as vice president and eventual succession to the presidency.

"It is agreed then," says one of the group after their selection, "Congressman Evan Kendrick will be the next Vice President of the United States. He will become President eleven months {later} . . . The code name is Icarus, to be taken as a warning, a fervent prayer that he will not, like so many of his predecessors have done, try to fly too close to the sun and crash into the sea." All this is unbeknownst to Kendrick, a 40-year-old Coloradoan, who is anxious to quit Washington after one term in the House of Representatives.

Thus is the premise of Robert Ludlum's The Icarus Agenda, his 14th novel. His other 13 generated their own appealing, if improbable, tension, bounding toward their endings in tantalizingly crooked lines, the match between one good man and evil forces. All hardcore suspense, if softcore espionage, his work has previously rested safely somewhere between James Bond and George Smiley.

Some years back Ludlum said in an interview, "I don't spend a great deal of time on things that don't move the story." It was a good practice, which he executed skillfully, creating stories that had the feel of one coherent, breathless chase. The Icarus Agenda instead lurches along, weaving a hyperbolic patchwork, picking up and discarding two fundamentals along the way -- characters and subplots.

While keeping the focus on Kendrick and his girlfriend, a CIA agent, Ludlum just doesn't settle on the evil side. There's no Mr. Big. During the first third of the novel, the evil force is a Middle East madman called the Mahdi but Kendrick eliminates him. Next the evil is represented by the group of elders, called Inver Brass, which appeared first in Ludlum's 1977 The Chancellor Manuscript. Finally the evil is a nebulous group of arms merchants and followed ultimately by a shadowy and vague young government computer expert.

The conspiracies and conspirators are layered too thick, and are not sufficiently related to each other as the story staggers to its finish.

There is endless, banal dialogue as if Ludlum had to jack up the word count and pad it to 677 pages to give a big-book appearance. The characters have little depth and display little of the psychological or technical sophistication a reader might reasonably expect from his other novels. There is not enough realism. For example, the heroes speak on the domestic and international telephone all the time, conducting the most sensitive conversations knowing they are up against those possessing the latest eavesdropping technology.

The portrait of Washington and its institutions is off, a minor matter if the story held up or Ludlum had created a plausible and interesting alternative Washington. Instead he attempts to take the Washington that exists and graft onto it some simplicities that remove the infighting and intrigue which make Washington forever interesting.

Ludlum and his characters display little understanding about Washington secrets and how virtually impossible it is to keep one. When Kendrick's secret role in a Middle East hostage crisis leaks to the press, the CIA special operations chief holds forth on the improbability. "There are records going back to World War Two that won't see the light of day until the middle of the next century, if then. . . Most are stored in data banks with access codes that have to be coordinated between a minimum of three intelligence services and the Oval Office. . ."

Secrets normally don't last that long, three U.S. intelligence agencies can't coordinate much of anything, let alone agree, and the surest way to blow a secret is to give any part of it or its access code to the Oval Office. (Ronald Reagan might forget his code).

Ludlum justifiably has a loyal following. Reviews of most of his previous books are critical but conclude, grudgingly, that he has another inevitable bestseller. The Icarus Agenda too will sell, but readers are entitled to a modest warning label. In fairness, to both Ludlum and readers, that might best come in the form of some sample conversation because Icarus is told largely through large chunks of dialogue.

The CIA woman speaks:

" 'Whoever that blond man was, whomever he represents, he reached way down deep in our cellars and took out what he should never have been given. I'm stunned, Evan, petrified, and those words aren't strong enough for the way I feel. Not only by what's been done to you, but by what's been done to us. We've been compromised, penetrated where such penetration should have been impossible. If they -- whoever they are -- can dig you up out of the deepest, most secure archives we have, they can learn a lot of other things no one should have acces to. Where people like me work that can cost a great many lives -- very unpleasantly.'

"Kendrick studied her taut, striking face, seeing the fear in her eyes. 'You mean that, don't you? You are frightened.' "

Get it? Ludlum has a tendency to repeat, making sure nothing gets lost on the inattentive or careless reader, say on the airplane or in front of the TV. Italics, CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation points! assist throughout. But enough. A fine escapist has flown too close to the sun and nearly crashed.

Bob Woodward, an assistant managing editor of The Washington Post, is the author of "VEIL: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987."