April 28, 1986 12:00 PM

by Robert Littell

The sisters of the title are two men who work for the CIA. Their first names are Carroll and Francis, and they think of themselves as a line from Walt Whitman that referred to “the sisters Death and Night.” The two trigger an elaborate plot in which a Soviet agent, called the “sleeper” because he has hidden in the U.S. for years before being called into action, is sent to an American city to assassinate an important public figure. Littell, the author of The Amateur and other novels about spies, splendidly describes the training of the sleeper and creates an engrossing character, the potter, who trains such agents in the Soviet Union. It is the potter who knows that “it was the odd detail…that would convince an interrogator that a suspect was telling the truth. The fact that someone lisped when he talked, that a girl wore padded brassieres, that a drugstore where the sleeper had worked as a fountain clerk specialized in egg creams…. ” Littell knows it is exactly that sort of detail that makes an engrossing spy story. The suspense, as the sleeper takes off across America in a Greyhound bus trailed by the potter, an ex-lover and two hired killers, builds steadily to a climax of betrayal and vile secrets. Littell leaves lots of bodies along the way, and he’s included enough kinky sex to make this X-rated. But The Sisters is right up there with the novels of Le Carré, Deighton and the rest of the best British spy guys. (Bantam, $16.95)

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