There are virtually no women in Frederick Forsyth's latest novel, ''The Fourth Protocol.'' Most of the characters are male professionals. This is in stark contrast to one of the greatest spy novels I've ever read, John le Carre's ''The Little Drummer Girl,'' which featured a woman amateur as the main character. Yet ''The Fourth Protocol'' came close to matching ''The Little Drummer Girl'' in its impact.
In ''The Fourth Protocol,'' as in other entertainments, an infamous trio of British traitors, Harold (Kim) Philby, Guy Burgess, and Donald Maclean, has popped up. (The three men began spying for the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Burgess and Maclean were exposed and fled to Moscow in 1951. Both are now dead. Philby, who followed them to Moscow in 1963, is still living in the Soviet Union.)
A current movie, ''Another Country,'' based on Julian Mitchell's play of the same title, is a very thinly veiled portrait of the young Guy Burgess during his public school days. In Michael Hastings's recent novel, ''A Spy in Winter,'' the fictional main character is the Russian master spy who recruited and controlled Philby, Burgess, and Maclean. And now Kim Philby is a central character in ''The Fourth Protocol.''
Philby's presence is only one of several aspects that make this novel interesting. Forsyth, best known for ''The Day of the Jackal'' and ''The Odessa File,'' has set his current novel in the year 1987. Margaret Thatcher is still prime minister of Great Britain, and an unnamed character closely resembling the late Yuri Andropov is the leader of the Soviet Union. There is a great deal of jockeying for position in the upper echelons of the British intelligence services, due to the imminent retirement of the heads of both MI5 and MI6. A similar power struggle is being waged in the top ranks of the Soviet hierarchy.
Kim Philby, tired and disillusioned with Soviet life and longing to return to England, is asked by the Soviet leader to explain a remark he made about underestimating Britain's political stability. A report by MI5 employee John Preston on the extreme left wing of the Labour Party is filed by his superior under ''No Further Action.'' And Jim Rawlings, a London thief, manages to steal, along with some famous diamonds, a sheaf of top secret papers hidden in the lining of an attache case belonging to a high-ranking employee of the Defense Ministry.
All of these events set the stage for Forsyth's complicated plot involving a Soviet plan to change the face of British politics and trigger the collapse of the Western alliance. The plan includes violating ''the fourth protocol,'' the last unbroken agreement between the Soviet Union and the United States concerning the use of small nuclear weapons.
The plot of ''The Fourth Protocol'' unfolds like a cabbage. Leaf by leaf, Forsyth reveals the details of the Soviet plan and the attempts of the British intelligence services to thwart it. This technique keeps the suspense at a high pitch, arousing the reader's curiosity more as each leaf is peeled away. The suspense is maintained to the very end of the novel, when Forsyth provides a few final surprises.
The strength of ''The Fourth Protocol'' lies in its convoluted construction, its suspenseful plotting, its direct, efficient writing, and its wealth of detail on everything from cracking a safe to smuggling nuclear bomb components.
The characterization relies to a great extent on stereotypes - hardly surprising, considering the great number of characters and the fact that many of them are engaged in soldiering and spying, professions that tend to attract and to mold certain personality types. The characterizations are efficient, however; some of them are deftly drawn sketches; and none of them get in the way of the plot.
Kim Philby's role, the futuristic setting, the timeliness of the subject matter, the skillful blend of fact and fiction, and the involved construction of the plot all contribute to making ''The Fourth Protocol'' the most fascinating, informative, and suspenseful spy novel since le Carre's ''The Little Drummer Girl.''