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CHARLIE MUFFIN, spy fiction's most offbeat secret agent, is the target of twin vendettas in Englishman Brian Freemantle's "Comrade Charlie."

His snobbish temporary boss in the British Secret Intelligence Service wants him driven out of the agency. And back in Moscow, a KGB general wants revenge for having been tricked by Charlie during a previous mission.

Naturally, neither succeeds. They've picked on the wrong chap. Because Charlie's ahead of them by the proverbial kilometer when it comes to plotting, scheming, intriguing, maneuvering, manipulating, et al.

As his spy school director tells Charlie, "You're a born cheat and a liar." It's meant as a compliment because, he adds, "That's what good intelligence officers mostly are."

This enables scruffy Charlie to outwit the twits in Whitehall and the vindictive brass in Dzerzhinsky Square while simultaneously exposing Moscow's theft of America's "Star Wars" missile secrets from hush-hush labs in California and England. When it comes to dodging entrapments and fashioning snares of his own, Charlie Muffin is awesomely world-class.

Freemantle, Muffin's 56-year-old creator, again reworks the format that has served him well in the series' eight earlier entries: Surrounded, and seemingly about to be overwhelmed by his enemies, Charlie becomes his own cavalry. He rides to his own nick-of-time rescue with that uncanny ability to penetrate deception and, in a stunning denouement, to leave foes confounded and superiors dazzled.

Comrade Charlie
By Brian Freemantle
St. Martin's Press
443 pages, $22.95.

Gems from a half-century
Editor Eleanor Sullivan has nicely winnowed from some 8,000 detective/crime/suspense short stories the best 50 that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine during its first half-century of publication, from the 1940s through the 1980s.

Our favorites are among the rarely anthologized.

Such as Andrew Garve's clever "Line of Communication," about a resourceful kidnapped youngster who flies a kite to show Scotland Yard where he's being held.

And Robert Barnard's subtle "A Good Turn," in which an angry, long-abandoned son is unintentionally befriended by his no-good father when the latter prevents him from becoming a murderer by talking the son out of killing him.

And author Charlotte Armstrong has a chap named Walter, hiding from police as a hit-and-run driver wanted in a fatality, brought to justice by a monstrous irony when he tries to sell the auto that would implicate him. The title: "Run -- If You Can."

Fifty Best Mysteries
Carroll & Graf
642 pages, $13.95 paperback.

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