Like all Lawrence Sanders' fiction, "The Passion of Molly T." is a smoothly professional, intensely readable piece of work. But it will not be remembered as one of his best efforts.

One of the problems with "The Passion of Molly T." is the near-absence of Manhattan in its plot and background. In his best work, from "The Anderson Tapes" all the way up to "The Seduction of Peter S.," Manhattan has been almost a living character; its pace and energy have given the plots vitality; its neighborhoods, shops and restaurants have provided color; its eccentric citizens have contributed human interest in inexhaustible variety.

"The Passion of Molly T." begins in West Virginia and takes us through Middle America, but its center of gravity is Washington. The text indicates that Sanders has spent time in this city, but he does not know it with the instinctive intimacy he has with New York. When he talks about "a dull, brutish office building on Northwest H Street in Washington," a loft in Adams Morgan, an apartment in Georgetown or a posh home in Spring Valley, the geographic references are lifeless. The same is true of his Washington characters: congressmen, congressional aides, power brokers and dirty tricksters.

A central character in this book is a presidential candidate, Sen. Lemuel K. Dundee. He is a cliche': Bob Forehead a generation older and more traditional in his rhetorical style. Driven by intricately twisted circumstances, he decides to seek a woman as his running mate in the 1992 election. (Novels occasionally are overtaken by events.) The story of how he adopts this measure, which Sanders seems to consider desperate, is readable enough, but that is a tribute to Sanders' ability to knit a plot together, not his (usually reliable) skill at probing a character. And the problem is not that Dundee is particularly hard to believe in, simply that he is not very interesting.

Sanders does manage to sustain a fair level of interest mainly through two standard ingredients of his fiction: sex and violence. In this book, they are woven together in the establishment and progress of two fictional feminist organizations. The National Women's Union is a militant but essentially nonviolent women's rights organization; the Women's Defense Corps is its terrorist offspring, devoted to direct, violent action in defense of women's rights.

Some of the best passages in "The Passion of Molly T." describe military operations of the WDC against rapists, pornographers, wife-beaters, employers and others who exploit women or deprive them of their rights and do not receive adequate legal punishment. In one crisp segment, Sanders summarizes the operations of the WDC in 1990: 264 actions involving 14 fatalities of which six were WDC members. The list includes "19 bombings, 214 cases of arson and attempted arson, 2 alleged assassinations, 1 kidnapping, 44 incidents of assault and battery, and 114 reports of destruction of private property . . . By far the largest percentage of targets were accused or convicted rapists. The second largest classification was wife beaters. The third, child molestors."

Descriptions of actions against such offenders are sometimes accomplished in one paragraph, sometimes in pages of lavish, loving detail as in his account of an operation that destroys the offices and printing facilities of a Hustler-type magazine. The terrorists wipe out the stock of its latest edition and kill the publisher. Yet, as in his portrayal of Washington, Sanders shows mainly an observant outsider's knowledge of terrorist organizations. For the purposes of mass-market fiction that is quite enough.

Reckless adventurism and divisions among the leadership turn out to be the chief problems of the WDC, complicated by the rather convoluted sex lives of some of the leading characters. Chief among these is Molly Turner, founder of the WDC, who is named in the title, a tough, intelligent woman who becomes a single-minded terrorist after her lesbian lover is killed by macho creeps. Her helpers and rivals in the two feminist organizations (including two male Vietnam vets who provide combat training) are vivid and believable.

Sanders' plot ticks away like clockwork, and he is, as usual, a master of suspense. But for his next novel, he should return to New York and find a subject more interesting than presidential politics.