I had a feeling of deja vu reading Len Deighton's latest spy novel, ''Berlin Game.'' The plot - uncovering the identity of a Soviet double agent in the British intelligence service - is so similar to that of John le Carre's ''Tinker , Tailor, Soldier, Spy'' that ''Berlin Game'' seemed slightly flat and disappointing by comparison. And, perhaps because of having ''Tinker, Tailor . . . '' on my mind, or perhaps because of Deighton's clues, I wasn't really surprised by the ending.
It's not surprising that the plot of ''Berlin Game'' should echo that of le Carre's spy classic. Uncovering the mole buried in the secret service is a basic spy novel plot. Evelyn Anthony used this plot in her recent novel, ''Albatross.'' However, there are distinct echoes in ''Berlin Game'' of ''Tinker , Tailor, Soldier, Spy.'' Both main characters are capable, intelligent men with a healthy pessimism developed over their long careers with the British intelligence service. Both are married to wealthy, strong-willed women. Both have to cope with interdepartmental politics and self-serving colleagues.
There are differences between them, however. Sampson's wife is also employed by British intelligence, unlike Smiley's wife. Sampson suspects his wife of infidelity. Smiley knows that his is unfaithful. Smiley is a good deal older than Sampson, yet both find themselves at crisis points in their lives and their careers.
Bernard Sampson, who is turning 40 and drinks too much, is coping with all the symptoms of a midlife crisis. He has been passed over for promotion in the past and reports to an egotistical nitwit who is two years younger and has never worked as a field agent. Sampson's days as a field agent are coming to an end: He is becoming too well known in his undercover territory, Berlin, where he grew up and can pass for a native. He suspects his wife of sleeping with a colleague. To compound these problems, Sampson is given the job of locating the traitor in the intelligence service, and he must get the service's most valuable agent out of East Germany.
The story begins slowly and provides lots of details about the routine, everyday aspects of working for the British intelligence service. As the plot thickens, the tension increases. When Sampson goes undercover in Berlin one last time and realizes who the traitor is, the pace of the novel quickens, and it is hard to put down.
Given the limits of the genre, it is inevitable that there will be familiar echoes in plots and characters. It is unreasonable of me to expect otherwise. But I can hope, because although it rarely occurs, this genre can produce a novel that is fresh and unique, such as John le Carre's most recent novel, ''The Little Drummer Girl.'' But if a spy novel is intelligent and well-written, and if it has an exciting and suspenseful plot, interesting and believable characters, and information about foreign places, politics, and people, it succeeds, and the echoes should not matter.
Although a little weak on plot suspense, ''Berlin Game'' does contain all of these elements. Deighton's characters seem to be like real people, having likable and unlikable qualities. He draws a fascinating portrait of divided Berlin - its history, its ambiance, and its people. ''Berlin Game'' is a very good spy novel - interesting, entertaining, and at times, exciting. I enjoyed the book. But I would have enjoyed it more without that feeling of deja vu.