Although at first glance it might appear that all Washington novels have fallen into a pattern as rigid as the cowboy sagas of Max Brand, there is in fact some variety.

The appearance of sameness comes from most writer's reluctance to acknowledge that Washington can produce anything but major crisis, that restuarants are staffed by other than headwaiters, and that most people who make up Washington's press and political forces are still the hicks they were when they left wherever they came from.

"Friends in High Places" is a nice variant, Admittedly it is the respository of many shameless cliches and much computer prose, but it also offers some earthy wit and picaresque tribulations that are believable.

"Friends" sees Washington through the lives of half a dozen memorable women, all involved one way or another with the press and with each other. Their lives include not only some shards of glamor but also dirty wash basins, unpaid bills, some real loneliness, and cockeyed happenings.

"Friends" would have you believe, properly I think, that for a woman to conquer Washington she must have the durability and spunk of a frontier widow.

These women of "Friends" do conquer -- a Pulitzer for one, a prestigous column for another, and so on -- but always their victory requires more than talent. It requires outwitting and outlasting perverse, irresponsible, bullying and pretentious men, and putting up with such burdens as a retarded kid, an alcoholic husband and a horny boss. That may add up to soap opera of a sort, but it's a heck of a lot more entertaining than your typical crisis in the Oval Office.

Speaking of which, we come to "Executive Privilege."

When President Jenner's office log is leaked to The Washington Post, a few of the less somnambulant reporters notice that one of the presidential aides who happens also to be psychiatrist is spending a lot of time with Jenner, Daily. Previously in his career Jenner went through a psychological funk. Is it happening again? Reporters ultimately uncover the truth -- which can't be divulged here without ruining the platform from which Lynne Cheney [wife of Wyoming Rep. Richard Chenney] hopes to do a swan dive into your conscience.

Now the question is whether they should permmit their findings and mess up a Jenner scheme or bowing to the president's plea. withhold and thereby become an auxiliary of the administration. The decision these trepid newsmen make is pretty stupid, but that just adds a note of realism.

Chenney handles the narrative without a snarl. But the dilemma is simply not exciting enough to carry the tale so far without the help of some lively characters rolling around. Except for Vice President Boyston, who kicks chairs when he gets mad, they don't exist. The Post's White House reporter, for example, is supposed to be "unscrupulous," but he really seems only a bit grumpy, and I can't blame him. President Jenner appears to be carrying burdens no greater than those of a Common Cause executive. Most of the sanitized characters would be right at home in a three-part Redbook series.

This first novel isn't worth 10 bucks, but it's certainly a treasure compared to "Fireworks."

Rory Mann is assigned by New Life magazine to do an "in-depth" profile of Carlo Vecchio, one of those fellows who stand on the White House lawn each evening with microphones in their hands and a ton of spray on their hair to read a few cosmic lines to network-wathers. Rory and Carlo go for each other. But never mind that. Let's get back to the interviews, of which this is a typical exchange:

Carlo: "if I came on less than straight, the public wouldn't trust me."

Rory: "Credibility, right."

Carlo is impressed with his role in life. He tells Rory, "i'm smack in the middle of everything that's going on in the world, as it's happening." Come to think of it, a network commentator just might tell his girl friend something like that.

As for author Rosemary Edelman's talents at giving the reader a feel for Washington, well, she has Carlo lunching with a bureacrat "at one of the best tables at Sans Souci, the restuarant for seeing and being seen and hearing and being heard." Edelman lives in Los Angeles.

The Post plays a dramatic underarm role. On one page we are told that Carlo's boss "paced up and down the corridor . . . a section of The Washington Post under his arm." On the next page, "Carlo boarded the plane, The Washington Post under his arm."

"Fireworks" has such a fast plot I never could get it quite straight, but I can tell you that toward the last Carlo had a chance to learn the real scoop about Kennedy's assassination -- but blew it. For love, of course.