HARLOT'S GHOST By Norman Mailer (Abacus, $152) THE light of a bedside table shines through the darkness of a Moscow hotel room projecting on to the wall microfilmed pages of Harry Hubbard's typed manuscript. It is March, 1984. In March of the previous year, a badly-mutilated body was washed up on the mud-flats of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland. The face had been blown away with a shotgun and fish had eaten the fingertips, making identification through prints impossible. But some teeth survived the shotgun blast and they matched the dental records of Hugh Tremont Montague, codename Harlot, one of the founding fathers of the Central Intelligence Agency. Harlot and Harry Hubbard's father Cal had groomed Harry for a career in the CIA. When he recalls those salad days in the mid-50s after he joined the agency and compares it with the shambles of his present life, he sees he has left in his wake a trail of lies, betrayals, ruined hopes and needless deaths. He even betrayed the man he most respected, Harlot, by stealing his wife Kittredge. Now on the run from the CIA, he must cope with the ghosts of the past as they rise up to meet him in this Moscow hotel room. The pages on the wall comprise his unfinished autobiography, the writing of which was rudely interrupted by Harlot's death, if indeed it is Harlot's body and if the man who pulled the trigger was really from the CIA. Most of Harlot's Ghost comprises the autobiography, ending in early 1964 shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It takes Harry through several theatres of operation beginning in Berlin, moving on to Uruguay and ending up in Washington and Miami. But the book is more than a run-of-the-mill spy novel. It is a fictional study of an era in the United States when Americans were full of misplaced hope. They glowed with it and then their dreams, Harry Hubbard's dreams, withered in the dust. JFK's ex-mistress speaks for so many of the characters in this novel when she tells Harry: ''I am en route to the end of the road. Where the shadows dwell.'' In the world of espionage, nothing is as it appears. It is a world of deceit, double agents, dead drops, phone taps and false identities. At first Harry has difficulty adapting. He comes, after all, from a clean-living, patriotic, middle-class family but Harlot is a charismatic teacher. He persuades Harry it is honourable to lie for one's country. Harry is a quick learner and he is soon able to lead the double life of the field agent. As Kittredge tells Harry, there is an Alpha and an Omega within us all - two people inhabiting one mind, sometimes acting in unison, sometimes completely apart. Harry recognises them in both his job and personal life. ''The spy like the illicit lover must be capable of existing in two places at once.'' He sees Alpha/Omega's pervasive presence in the agency, in the country and in the men who rule it. In Germany, Harry is thrust into the middle of the Cold War and rides ''shotgun'' in the bullet-proof cadillac of bureau chief, ''Buffalo'' Bill Harvey who never goes anywhere without a shaker full of martinis and two revolvers plugged into shoulder holsters. To a young CIA operative, West Berlin in 1956 is a frontier town where anything goes in espionage terms. The bars and nightclubs are seedy and sordid. Double agents, dressed in leather, frequent gay orgies and sell their bodies and their secrets to the highest bidder. Within the Berlin bureau, trust is a luxury none can afford. Local field agents know that if senators on Capitol Hill realised how disorganised the Warsaw Pact actually was, they would promptly slash the US military and intelligence budget. Disinformation is not therefore just being practised by the other side. Harlot's Ghost mixes real and fictional characters and the Kennedy brothers figure prominently. The very public face of John F. Kennedy, great statesman, is contrasted with the Omega, Jack Kennedy, promiscuous bed-hopper. After the failure of the Bay of Pigs and the anti-Castro escapades that descend to the level of farce, Harry realises that truth is the first victim in the spy game and he is one of the game's finest players. By now he is lying to Cal, Harlot, his friends and his mistress and they are deceiving him. ''What was the truth I wondered? I had been lying for so long to so many people and I was beginning to feel mendacious relations with myself. Was I a monster or merely in a muddle?'' Authors who put real and fictional characters on the same stage, are treading through a minefield. Mr Mailer emerges unscathed and at the end of the novel he reveals to readers which of the CIA operatives were real and which were not. He read upwards of 100 books about the CIA and this enables him to write with authority. However Harlot's Ghost sprawls over 1,400 pages and that's a lot of words. Despite having a talent that borders on genius, Norman Mailer has always had one major flaw; he doesn't know when to stop. Harlot's Ghost is over-written and would have benefited from being a leaner novel. Some of the flabbiest passages get mired in detail and intellectual wordplay and interrupt the rhythm of the story. That said, for the most part, Harlot's Ghost is totally absorbing. There are few writers alive who can match the power of Mr Mailer's dialogue in full flow. The exchanges of the CIA operatives are a joy to read. They could be lifted from page to screen without changing a line.