Women in today's spy novels have come a long way, baby; Ride a Pale Horse, by Helen MacInnes. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 355 pp. $15.95. The Company of Saints, by Evelyn Anthony. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 235 pp. $15.95. The Zurich Numbers, by Bill Granger. New York: Crown Publishers Inc. 243 pp. Seven Steps to Treason, by Michael Hartland. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 247 pp. $14.95.
The world of espionage has traditionally been a male domain. Lately, however, women have been playing more active roles in spy novels, as both professionals and amateurs in espionage.
A current batch of exciting, well-written spy novels features women in key roles. Although these novels share a number of plot elements, they are distinguished from one another by characterization and human relationships. And of special interest in this male-dominated genre is the fact that two were written by women.
Helen MacInnes usually features a female character in her novels. In Ride a Pale Horse, her 21st, that character is Karen Cornell, a Washington reporter. Karen is catapulted into the world of espionage when she covers a peace conference in Czechoslovakia. A high-ranking Czech official gives her some secret papers and asks her to help him defect. Karen turns the papers over to CIA agent Peter Bristow and becomes involved in uncovering a Soviet mole in the CIA and in aborting a Soviet assassination plot designed to discredit the US. Karen and Peter, typical clean-cut, all-American MacInnes characters, also fall in love. Although the identity of the mole comes as no surprise, ''Ride a Pale Horse'' is well done. It won't, however, make you forget any of Miss MacInnes's earlier novels, many of them classics of the genre.
Unlike Karen Cornell, Evelyn Anthony's Davina Graham is a professional. In The Company of Saints, the fourth Davina Graham novel, she has become the first female head of the British intelligence service. In the three earlier novels, ''The Defector,'' ''The Avenue of the Dead,'' and ''Albatross,'' Davina dealt with the murder of her Russian defector husband by the KGB, the exposure of a Soviet mole in British intelligence, and a rocky romance with an ex-SAS major, Colin Lomax. In ''The Company of Saints,'' Colin and Davina are reunited in their efforts to destroy a ring of renegade Soviet terrorists. Davina retires at the end of the novel; I hope that a future crisis will bring her back into the intelligence service.
Bill Granger's Rita Macklin is another Washington reporter-turned-amateur-spy. Rita is also in love with Devereaux, an enigmatic American agent code-named ''November'' and the star of Granger's five November Man novels. The two were brought together in ''Schism,'' were forced to part when the KGB put out contracts on them in ''The British Cross,'' and are brought together again in Granger's latest novel, The Zurich Numbers. When Devereaux stumbles upon a slave ring that forces Eastern-bloc immigrants to work as spies, Rita and Devereaux must flee from both Communist and American agents and extricate themselves from a web of treachery and deceit. I'm sure that the peace they find in the end will be short-lived, and that there will be another assignment for the November Man in the future.
Seven Steps to Treason, Michael Hartland's second novel, has three important female characters: Sarah Cable, the 19-year-old daughter of former agent William Cable, now Britain's ambassador to United Nations activities in Vienna; Cable's mistress, Naomi Reichmann, an art dealer whose father is retired from the Mossad , the Israeli intelligence service; and KGB Major General Nadia Kirov, who first appeared in Hartland's previous novel, ''Down Among the Dead Men.''
Kirov orchestrates an attempt to blackmail Cable into revealing the details of a British operation in Poland. Cable's daughter is kidnapped, and he is threatened with the exposure of an incriminating incident that occurred years before in Vietnam. Cable, who suspects his mistress of working for the KGB, attempts to save both his daughter and his career without turning traitor. In the process he tracks down a Soviet mole in the Viennese diplomatic community. Perhaps Sarah Cable's recruitment by British intelligence will be the springboard for Hartland's third novel.
The women in these novels are not mere decoration; they are at the heart of the action.