Robert Ludlum's newest is more than a mere thriller;
The Aquitaine Progression, by Robert Ludlum. New York: Random House. 653 pp. ''Geneva,'' begins Robert Ludlum's newest thriller. ''City of sunlight and bright reflections . . . the old and new of sidewalk cafes, of sudden unwanted revelation.'' At one such cafe, Joel Converse - an American attorney and Vietnam veteran living in Geneva - meets A. Preston Halliday. Halliday is another American working in Switzerland and a business rival. Over coffee and croissants , Halliday makes a ''sudden unwanted revelation,'' and Converse is plunged into a morass involving a ruthless neo-Third Reich organization of which he soon becomes the target.
In his 10th action-intrigue novel, Ludlum reworks this familiar theme. Only Converse, a self-appointed vigilante, can stop them, and he becomes the prey of a gallery of military and intelligence agents whose plans he seeks to thwart.
But Ludlum creates more than merely another Third Reich tale. The plot becomes the story of Converse's past, and the portraits of retired German, Israeli, French, and American military officials are at once charming, recognizable, and at times maniacal. Ludlum ambitiously creates a fabric of international intrigue in which both terrorist society and recent history - World War II, the Vietnam war, and the crisis in the Middle East - are interwoven. Converse is not the cool, self-contained hero of legendary spy fiction, but is a hunted man with a nervous temperament which threatens to explode at every twist of the plot.
Other merits of ''The Aquitaine Progression'' include a procession of fascinating minor characters. The use of parallel plotting, wherein various characters retell incidents from the past - murders, escapes, and intrigues - is a structural device that neatly foreshadows the novel's conclusion. As usual, Ludlum's prodigious research is put to good use with his accounts of historical events and organizational detail. ''The Aquitaine Progression'' will be a popular novel. One hopes it will be read with the kind of care the author has invested in creating more than simply a facile entertainment.