"Chameleon" is written by the author of "Sharky's Machine," now playing at neighborhood theaters. In three or four years "Chameleon" probably will be playing at neighborhood theaters.

It's a formula novel, another entry in the overcrowded espionage sweepstakes. You've read it all before: The prose is competent at best and cliche'd at worst; the characters are, if not wooden, plastic; the ingredients include globe-trotting and big bucks and a tough, sensuous woman (this one's a TV reporter); its plot ultimately becomes so byzantine that you find yourself checking back two or three pages to figure out where the hell you are.

Which is why the movie, if there is to be one, should be better; it will have to eliminate some of the subplots if it's to come in under two hours, with the result that the main plot may become more sharply focused. If that happens, "Chameleon" will be okay.

William Diehl obviously has the movies in mind, because at his best he has a nice cinematic touch. The first 50 pages could, in the hands of a deft director, produce a swift opening sequence. In quick succession, four violent incidents take place. A professional killer is himself murdered, by a woman he has picked up. A famous Italian race driver dies as his new car is blown to bits. An impregnable oil rig is sabotaged during a ferocious storm, killing a couple of hundred people. And a hustling young crook is murdered after making a drop in Hawaii.

They are discrete events, yet they all point to the work of a mysterious organization called Chameleon. Then a Boston newspaper publisher named Charles Gordon Howe receives a letter from Anthony Falmouth, "according to legend the most skilled assassin in the business and a man who could kill you with a dirty look." The letter announces:

"Because of my position, I have become privy during the past few years, but most particularly in the past few months, to the details of a story that is monstrous in concept and terrifying in potential. Its implications reach into the highest political offices of the world. Properly documented, this information would make the Watergate conspiracy seem like mere schoolboy pranks and, in comparison, even the assassination of President Kennedy will pale."

For his information, Falmouth asks $250,000. He also insists that the stories be written by Frank O'Hara, a former CIA agent who wrote a series of articles embarrassing to the agency, with the result that his former section chief put out a contract on him. O'Hara went "on the dodge"; if Howe can find him and persuade him to work on the story, a monster news break could be in the making.

So Howe commissions Eliza Gunn, a whiz-bang reporter for a television station he owns, to track down O'Hara. She finds him at last in Japan, where he was raised and where he trained in "kendo, tai chi, karate and Shinto discipline." He doesn't want to do it, but the old urge is still there. A passage that has appeared in 9 million spy novels:

"They're gonna get me into this, he thought, and the very idea made him angry and it was difficult to explain his feeling to Howe, this overwhelming sense of anger that was growing inside him. He knew the scenario before it was recited, knew the characters, the locations, could even recite a lot of the dialogue. It was not just the pervading sense of dishonor; not the excesses of a Game in which people kill, maim and steal with impunity, a blood sport in which the score was kept in head counts, not numbers. No, O'Hara's anger sprang from acceptance. He was angry because he was accepted by the Players in this community of hyenas. He was part of it, like it or not."

So off he goes to save the world and to take us on a 200-page Grand Tour of the espionage novel. Diehl gives us the Caribbean (James Bond!) and Japan (James Clavell!) and the Continent (Frederick Forsyth!) and Latin America (Graham Greene!) and the United States (Thomas Harris!); for some reason he does not give us London, East Berlin or Moscow, which doubtless will greatly disappoint John le Carr'e.

This is mildly entertaining, in the way that "Hawaii Five-O" is mildly entertaining: Turn off your brain and float. People who believe that the oil industry is systematically robbing an oil-thirsty world will be greatly satisfied with the novel's political messages, and people who like recycled prose will be in seventh heaven: "There was a small fear in her stomach, a gnawing anxiety. Something was going to take him back to the ways of the West. She sensed the danger." Or: "And O'Hara thought, She's going to get us in trouble. She's big trouble, I can tell by that look in those eyes and the set in her jaw."

"Chameleon" was written on automatic pilot, but it doesn't fly.