"Walking Shadows," a marvelous work by Australian Fred Taylor, has all the ingredients of a classic spy story: characters we can understand and care about; a complex and profound, yet believable, plot; a fast-paced suspense-filled narrative; and a mystery whose unraveling forced this reader, at least, to utter a gasp at the moment of revelation. Whereas le Carre''s George Smiley novels deal mainly with the Cold War, the setting in "Walking Shadows" is hot indeed. Bombs are falling in London and Berlin; it is December 1942.

Taylor's Smiley is Jackie Bellingham, a former intelligence officer who returns in his fifties out of loyalty to "C," the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Bellingham has a clandestine meeting in Portugal with a young German officer in the Abwehr, Oberleutnant Otto von Bredow. Abwehr, the intelligence office of the German armed services, has a proposition. Abwehr has evidence that the Nazi high command has an agent planted in a sensitive area of British intelligence; it will supply information on this mole if the British will perform one simple deed in return -- assassinate Hitler.

What gives this proposition historical credence is the fact that it was Abwehr, under Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, that contained the most actively anti-Hitler group in the German Resistance. At least one attempt on Hitler's life was made by these people -- with a bomb that failed to explode on a plane carrying Hitler from a meeting with Gen. Hans von Kluge on the Russian front.

Canaris is the novel's conscience. "Such an agreement with the British is a rare thing," he says. "Certainly the last of its kind, unless together we and our British counterparts succeed in salvaging something of the old values. In Germany they put their gentlemen in prison, while in England these days they make them responsible to Parliament. The result is the same. The nation's natural moral and political leaders are rendered powerless, and the sweepings of the gutters are permitted to control the destinies of whole empires!"

Playing minor roles in "Walking Shadows" are Canaris' second in command, Hans Oster, and Hans Dohnanyi, who was collecting legal evidence against the Nazis to be used when the armed forces took over following the demise of Hitler. Canaris, Oster and Dohnanyi all were to be executed by the Nazis.

On the British side, the novel's characters include "C" -- Sir Stewart Menzies, the guardian of Ultra -- Churchill and an intelligence figure whose identity is best left unrevealed.

Once "C" agrees to the Abwehr proposition -- the German military wants the British to perform the killing so that it remains untainted when it takes control of the new Germany -- Bellingham is commissioned a major in the British army and given the job of recruiting and training the assassination team. The killing is to take place on the island of Rhodes, where Hitler is to meet Mussolini.

Capt. Mark Knox, whose mother was Greek, is the leader of the three-man murder squad. He joins Bellingham -- divorced, alcoholic and somewhat estranged from his son -- and von Bredow -- aristocratic, fatalistic and a war widower -- as the novel's focal personalities.

Joining Knox on the assassination team are a lieutenant and a demolitions-expert sergeant, whose job is to drop the side of a mountain atop a vehicle carrying the target (whose identity they do not know) from the airport. The British are ferried to Rhodes and placed in the hands of a shadowy Greek named Ioannides, whose loyalties -- to the British, the Gestapo, money -- are suspect. Ioannides has them led to the mountains and turned over to a local partisan group headed by a young Marxist.

While the plan to kill Hitler is being acted out on Rhodes, the subplot -- uncovering the mole -- is picking up steam in England and Sweden. The reader has a tendency to fly over these pages in order to return to the drama in Greece. Don't.

Of course, we know at the start that the plot to kill Hitler is doomed to failure. First, we know that Taylor is unlikely to rewrite history for the sake of his novel. Second, the title, "Walking Shadows," is a giveaway. It comes from "Macbeth":

"Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/ And then is heard no more; it is a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing."

All this planning, all this courage, all this blood, "signifying nothing."

Fortunately, this is not quite true. Taylor poses a question that is being asked by critics of our own Central Intelligence Agency. Can we trust a people who are forced to make amoral decisions toward their immediate ends to make the ultimate moral decisions when the outcome affects all the people of the free world?

Read "Walking Shadows" and judge for yourself.