AMSTERDAM By Ian McEwan Doubleday. 208 pp. $21 Reviewed by Michael Dirda, a writer and editor for Book World. Earlier this month Amsterdam won England's Booker Prize, joining the distinguished company of such books as Possession, The English Patient and The God of Small Things. Certainly, Ian McEwan's short novel is, as its publicity material says, a "delightful, wicked confection." This story -- about two friends, a composer looking for inspiration for the last movement of his "Millennial Symphony" and a newspaper editor trying to decide whether to publish some shocking photographs of Britain's Foreign Secretary -- is as sheerly enjoyable a book as one is likely to pick up this year. Yet it seems a somewhat unlikely choice for the often controversial Booker, which tends to go to hugely panoramic or linguistically demanding novels (by Salman Rushdie, Roddy Doyle, Michael Ondaatje). Though McEwan addresses several serious themes -- in particular, the conflict between personal desire and public responsibility -- his ingenious conte cruel possesses the lightness of touch and split-second plotting of an operetta. In other words, Amsterdam feels like a minor work. Brilliant, yes, but insufficiently ambitious for a major prize-winner. That said, the novel is, in its way, quite perfect. There is no huffing and puffing, no waste, no mess. Every sentence carries the fugue-like plot forward to the final catastrophe. The secondary characters -- the politician's surgeon wife, the conniving deputy editor at the newspaper -- spring vividly to life. Most readers will even pause, from time to time, to admire McEwan's mastery of his craft, the smooth, felicitous sentences, the telling observations about love, art and friendship. This is not altogether a good thing: One tends to hover mentally just slightly above the narrative, duly appreciative of the intricate marquetry but also alert for signs of authorial craftiness. Like aficionados of Golden Age mysteries, we pick up on the clues -- that seemingly casual mention of the Lakeland rapist, the item about euthanasia in Holland -- and note the ominous variations on the phrase "to air differences and remain friends, the essence of civilized existence, don't you think?" Before long, we can pretty well guess what's going to happen, but the pleasures of virtuosity more than compensate for the lack of surprise. Amsterdam opens with two middle-aged friends -- composer Clive Linley and journalist Vernon Halliday -- reminiscing outside a crematorium chapel in February. "Poor Molly. It began with a tingling in her arm as she raised it outside the Dorchester Grill to stop a cab -- a sensation that never went away. Within weeks she was fumbling for the names of things. Parliament, chemistry, propeller she could forgive herself, but less so bed, cream, mirror. It was after the temporary disappearance of acanthus and bresaiola that she sought medical advice, expecting reassurance. Instead, she was sent for tests and, in a sense, never returned." Both Clive and Vernon had once been lovers of the irrepressible Molly, and find themselves saddened not only by her death but also by the sickroom possessiveness of her husband, the press lord George Lane, and by her recent affair with the unbearable Julian Garmony, a xenophobic, conservative politician. After the funeral service, Clive returns home to work on the stalled final movement of his much anticipated Millennial Symphony. The composer, it turns out, regards himself as Vaughan Williams's heir; his detractors call him the thinking man's Gorecki. A critic of the atonal and aleatory, in 1975 Clive published a celebrated monograph containing "a sardonic account of a publicly subsidized concert' in a nearly deserted church hall, in which the legs of a piano were repeatedly struck with the broken neck of a violin for over an hour. An accompanying program note explained, with references to the Holocaust, why at this stage in European history no other forms of music were viable." Clive, however, believes in beautiful melodies, and decides that he needs to hike the Lake District to break through his current block. Meanwhile, Vernon is desperately trying to improve the circulation of his newspaper, the Judge -- without much luck. One eager editor argues for a news story about pottery shards in Ankara -- "you see, Vernon, it represents a fundamental shift in our understanding of the influence of the early Persian Empire on . . ." Another advocates an eight-page chess supplement. Clearly, members of "the old guard" would rather "see the paper die than let it reach out to an under-thirties readership. They had fought off the bigger typeface, the lifestyle section, the complementary health supplement, the gossip column, the virtual bingo, and the agony uncle, as well as snappy coverage of the royal family and pop music." Vernon is growing despondent when he receives a telephone call from George Lane (who owns a small percentage of the Judge). Among Molly's papers the bereaved husband has discovered three remarkably indiscreet photographs of the hateful Julian Garmony. "Sort of thing the News of the World would kill for." Vernon, at heart a serious journalist, is hesitant. George's publishing empire "was rooted in an energetic exploitation of the weak-headed: hidden numerical codes in the Bible foretold the future, the Incas hailed from outer space, the Holy Grail, the Ark of the Covenant, the Second Coming, the Third Eye, the Seventh Seal, Hitler was alive and well in Peru." Is he being used? More important, should he expose the private sexual life of a public servant? Vernon yearns to destroy Garmony, this racist, this fascist who just might become England's next prime minister. But when he turns to Clive for advice, his friend tells him that the sexual "hypocrisy" of this "family values man" is irrelevant. After all, Garmony has committed no crime. Vernon insists that by publishing the photographs he can prevent a monster from coming to power, one "who'd rather please his business friends than sign the accords on global warming." The two old friends part in anger. One needn't see in all this a premonition of Bill Clinton's sexual scandals -- English politics has had plenty of its own. But McEwan neatly complicates matters by setting up a similar moral dilemma for the high-minded but rather self-exculpatory Clive: Out in the Lake District the composer will have to make an instant decision about the claims of his music and his moral obligations to others. Is art, even great art, worth the possible destruction of a human life? Are symphonies more important than people? I won't say much more about the novel's double-helixed plot or the pact that precipitates its denouement. Vernon and Clive make their choices, with consequences as inevitable as those in Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale." Still, it should be remembered that Ian McEwan first secured his reputation 20 years ago -- in works like The Cement Garden and In Between the Sheets -- as a master of black humor, perverse sexuality and neo-gothic horror. In Amsterdam he has set aside the more emotionally draining and gruesome elements of his storytelling, and instead adopted the lightness and artificiality of the comic novel. Amsterdam doesn't feel "major" or "important" at all; but it does suggest that Ian McEwan just might be the heir of Evelyn Waugh.

Michael Dirda's Internet address is CAPTION: Booker Prize winner Ian McEwan ec