The plot -- a quarrel involving a major multinational oil company, a gaggle of British and American spies, and a big New York book-publishing concern -- sounds like an espionage thriller gone haywire.

The intrigue surrounds a book called "Countercoup," written by a former Central Intelligence Agency operative named Kermit Roosevelt. The book heroically recounts Roosevelt's adventures supervising a 1953 coup in Iran.

(This countercoup, as Roosevelt calls it, had been organized by British and American intelligence to topple the allegedly pro-Soviet regime of Prime Minister Mossadegh and return Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to the throne.)

"Countercoup" was published in August by McGraw-Hill Book Co., a unit of McGraw-Hill Inc. Copies were in the hands of reviewers several months ago, and the book was on sale late last week in some Washington-area bookstores.

But it wasn't supposed to be on sale anywhere; the entire first edition of 7,500 copies has been "scrapped," according to Victor DeKeyserling, director of publicity for the McGraw-Hill book-publishing concern. DeKeyserling says he sent telegrams to about 70 reviewers and to book distributors informing them that the book had been withdrawn, and would be destroyed because of "defective production and character." He says a revised edition will be "reissued" next spring.

What sort of mistake could be so awful that it would cause a publisher to recall an entire first edition? And why would a major oil company put pressure on the publisher to take such drastic action?

Out story gets a bit murky here, and we must rely on the account that has been offered by Roosevelt to a number of his old CIA friends. Roosevelt had confirmed the basic details.

It seems that in writing his book, Roosevelt faced a touchy problem in describing the activities of a British intelligence unit -- MI 6 -- that doesn't even like to acknowledge its existence, let alone its role in planning Mideast coups.

The CIA, to which Roosevelt submitted his manuscript for prepublication review, insisted that any direct references to British intelligence would have to go. Roosevelt then decided to alter such passages so that they referred, instead to Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., a predecessor of the multinational giant British Petroleum Co. Ltd. (BP is 51 percent owned by the British government and among other things, is the parent of Standard Oil Co. of Ohio, or Sohio.)

Sticky wicket for BP, Roosevelt's editorial change suggested either that BP's predecessor had been providing cover for intelligence operations in Iran or that it had maintained a covert action program of its own. When BP executives learned what was in the book, they raised what Roosevelt has described to friends as a "huge protest."

BP promptly contacted both Roosevelt and McGraw Hill and told them that statements in the book that Anglo-Iranian had helped organize the coup were "wrong, inaccurate and thought to be libelous," according to BP spokesman Rupert Hodges. McGraw-Hill, after doing some checking of its own, moved to recall the book.

Alas, BP's indignant protest was a bit late. In August, some books had arrived at bookstores, and a few booksellers promptly displayed them. A retired CIA official reports that "a whole stack of them" could still be found last week at a bookstore in McLean, Va., only a few miles from the CIA's headquarters.

"Something went awry," one former intelligence officer observes.

McGraw-Hill estimates that only 400 copies of Roosevelt's book actually got into the hands of bookstores and reviewers, and that 85 percent of these have been returned to the company since the recall notice went out Aug. 17. The recall hasn't been publicized. And as for the copies that remain in Washington-area bookstores, "if people don't want to return them, they don't have to," says Donald Rubin, director of public affairs for the parent McGraw-Hill Inc.

Before the last remaining copies of the first edition are snapped up, here's a brief summary of what readers weren't supposed to read:

Roosevelt states, on page three, that "the original proposal for Ajax (the code name for the coup) came from the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC) after its expulsion from Iran nine months earlier." Odd, perhaps, for an oil company to propose overthrowing a foreign government, but read on.

Roosevelt explains on page 107 that it was in November 1952 that "the AIOC approached me as I passed through London." It seems the British oil magnates, led by someone named John Cochran, proposed to Roosevelt "nothing less than the overthrow of Mossadegh," who was at that time prime minister of Iran. Later that year, Roosevelt says on page 119, "the British -- AIOC -- journeyed to Washington . . . purely for operational discussions." Finally, on page 154, the reader discovers that "unknowingly, AIOC and the CIA shared an agent -- we called him Rosenkrantz . . ."

McGraw-Hill officials won't discussthe revisions that are being made in "Countercoup." "We think the changes being made in the book will only improve it. That's the long and short of it," the company's Rubin says. o

Despite gossip around Washington that BP had offered at one point to help finance the reissue of "Countercoup," both Rubin of McGraw-Hill and Hodges of BP categorically deny that any such proposal was made. "In no case is McGraw-Hill going to accept money directly or indirectly from any third party," Rubin says.

Rubin also insists that there hasn't been any "pressure" from the CIA or any other U.S. agency. Nobody at McGraw-Hill has even talked with the CIA about the book, he adds.

At the CIA, spokesman Herbert Hetu confirms that there weren't any discussions with McGraw-Hill. The agency did object to Roosevelt's initial plan to mention British intelligence, he says, but it didn't suggest the unfortunate choice of Anglo-Iranian as a substitute. "We would normally take out references to activities with other intelligence services," Hetu syas. "Anomymity is part of the game."

It's all very embarrassing, of course. Tales of the "Countercoup" fiasco have been making the rounds among CIA alumni for several weeks. One particularly embarrassing miscue in the book is a photograph that supposedly shows Iranians demonstrating during the 1950s in favor of the since-deposed shah; the photograph is captioned, "Crowds fill the streets in support of the shah."

If the reader looks closely at the placards that the demonstrators are carrying, they clearly picture -- not the shah at all -- but Joseph Stalin. And some of the banners carried by these supposedly pro-shah demonstrators actually say things like "Down with the shah."