Charles McCarry has taken a quantum leap. After his earlier novels, "The Miernik Dossier" and "The Tears of Autumn," critics considered him a first-rate storyteller in the tradition of Eric Ambler and John le Carre'. With publication of "The Last Supper," McCarry moves alongside le Carre' and close behind Graham Greene as a thriller writer able to blend suspense, action and cerebral dexterity.

The hero of "The Last Supper" is Paul Christopher, late of "The Outfit"--read CIA. In "The Tears of Autumn," Christopher uncovered the Ngo family as the killers of John Kennedy, in retribution for the deaths of the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother. Although Christopher's evidence is destroyed by a White House adviser who is fearful of the international consequences if the truth were to get out, Christopher knows he is a marked man. The novel ends with Christopher returning to Europe to hide his girlfriend Molly from the vengeance of the Ngos.

"The Last Supper" opens with Christopher embarking on a trip to Vietnam to offer himself to the Ngos in order to spare Molly. At the same time the plane is leaving Paris, Molly is killed by a speeding car.

While Christopher is flying east, McCarry takes us back to Germany between the wars. There, a young American, Hubbard Christopher, meets and courts Lori von Buecheler. Paul Christopher is their son.

Paul's growing up coincides with the Nazi takeover in Germany. The Christophers help several people escape the Nazis by taking sailboats across the Baltic, an activity that becomes more dangerous as the war approaches. Finally, they decide it is time for them to leave Germany. When they are stopped at the border, Hubbard and Paul, U.S. citizens, are forced out of the country; Lori is taken away by the Gestapo.

Thus begins a quest.

Hubbard Christopher is determined to find his wife. He is recruited by the British as a spy; he reenters Germany posing as his look-alike cousin Elliott Hubbard. When the United States enters the war, Hubbard Christopher joins the fledgling U.S. intelligence; when the war ends, he is chief of intelligence in West Germany.

Enter Barney Wolkowicz.

"The Last Supper" is as much Wolkowicz's book as it is the Christophers'. Wolkowicz is introduced to the Christophers and the Hubbards by Waddy Jessup, Elliott Hubbard's prissy brother-in-law. Wolkowicz, says Jessup, is "my secret weapon. Snow is nothing to Wolkowicz. As a child he walked from Kiev to Shanghai with a little pack on his back--five thousand miles over the Urals, across freezing Siberia, through the burning Gobi. It's a proletarian epic."

Wolkowicz and Jessup fight the Japanese in Burma with Kachin tribesmen and elephants. While under fire from superior forces, Jessup escapes in an act of cowardice, leaving Wolkowicz behind. After his rescue from Japanese torturers, Wolkowicz blackmails Jessup into recommending him to Hubbard Christopher in London. This fatally binds Wolkowicz to the Christophers, father and son.

We are taken through a maze of espionage and violence, from Berlin to Washington. Along the way Paul Christopher spends 10 years in a Chinese prison.

It is this China interlude that gives the book its title. On each anniversary of Paul's imprisonment, his four friends from the Outfit--Wolkowicz, Elliott Hubbard's son Horace, Paul's college roommate David Patchen and Tom Webster--gather for dinner, leaving a chair empty for Paul. When he finally returns from prison, the friends--and Paul--have a "last supper," one at which Paul determines who was responsible for shanghaiing him to China.

But more than Paul Christopher's imprisonment is at issue. There is a "mole" loose in the American intelligence corps, just as earlier there was one loose on the British side. And this mole has been responsible, perhaps unwittingly, for the deaths of the two people closest to Christopher.

Does Hubbard Christopher find Lori? Does Paul Christopher escape the wrath of the Ngos? Who is the mole? You'll have to find out for yourself, an enjoyable task.

McCarry weaves a clever tale, using a stylistic legerdemain equal to le Carre''s in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." But "The Last Supper" also is a "proletarian epic." Hubbard Christopher recognizes this: "Sir Richard and his masters were . . . interested only in the style of the thing; spending the war in secret work was just another of the things fashionable people did to make themselves envied."

Wolkowicz feels antagonism toward the upper classes, particularly the Yale clique of which Jessup was a part. "I never realized it. It was the class struggle--me against the Fool Factory."

It is clear that McCarry, too, is ambivalent toward those attracted to espionage work: Hubbard Christopher joins in order to find his wife; Paul joins in his father's footsteps and is more interested in abstract "truth" than in his country's pragmatics; Wolkowicz is driven by personal loves and loyalties.

I suspect we'll be hearing from Paul Christopher again. As there were at the end of "The Tears of Autumn," enough loose ends remain in "The Last Supper" to warrant a sequel. I'm looking forward to it.