Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Second Lady by Irving Wallace

published 1980





[The First Lady of the USA has a busy day]

She had received the winners of a painting contest sponsored by a national association of handicapped persons. Then, [the designer] Ladbury himself, just arrived from London, had appeared for a preliminary fitting of new dresses and gowns she hoped to wear in Moscow and London. Without rest, assisted by her personal maid Sarah Keating, she had plunged into a search for an old college scrapbook that Guy Parker needed as research for the autobiography he was ghostwriting for her. Next, she had hastened downstairs… to receive the delegation of Girl Scouts and their leaders and pass out special awards to those who had performed outstanding community service. With less than five minutes to spare, she had gone with Nora to the Yellow Oval Room upstairs, where the gathering of press representatives had been having tea while awaiting her arrival.




observations: My good friend Prashant C Trikkanad recently talked about this book on his excellent blog Chess, Crosswords and Comics. The name of the post was ‘Sex in Fiction’ and he revealed that as a teenager this was one of the books that he enjoyed for its risqué content – but that it was also a good Cold War thriller with a twisty plot and a surprise ending. The plot sounded high concept & intriguing so obviously I had to read it: especially after enjoying a recent book on the Argentine First Lady Eva Peron - on the blog recently.

So this is the plot. The KGB has groomed a young actress to impersonate the First Lady of the USA, and at a key moment they organize the substitution. The real First Lady, Billie, is held in Moscow, while Vera takes her place. This is a short-term plan (covering a specific political crisis) and they think the sub can get away without having sex with the President. But they thought wrong. So the Soviets need to find out from the prisoner Billie what kind of sex she has with the President – most other things in her life they were able to check up on, but not this one. So perhaps a handsome young KGB man could go to bed with her and find out? And then pass on his observations?

This is a truly jaw-dropping plot point, and I can truly see where teenage boys will have loved this book – there are two sexual encounters with the two First Ladies and both are described in enormous detail, if in rather a clinical, matter-of-fact tone.

In addition to this – while talking about Patricia Ferguson's excellent Aren’t We Sisters? the other day, I mused that internal gynaecological examinations really don’t turn up in books very often, et voila, here’s another one inside a month. Again, quite unnecessary detail.

The whole impersonation plot is mind-boggling and you just have to suspend your disbelief and stop asking questions (eg were their feet the same size?), and wondering how on earth you could keep this secret when there was a huge staff of people in Moscow working towards training the young woman. You just have to rattle along with the plot – and the ending, as Prashant says, is extremely well-done: you don’t know how he’s going to get out of the situation he has got his characters into, but the final twist is a real humdinger.

It’s a weird mixture of sex talk and the Famous Five : ‘The key is in the pocket of the velvet suit model, the black velvet outfit on the mannequin’, for goodness sake. Meanwhile, at a secret meeting overheard by one of the goodies, each person introduces himself and then they run over their nefarious deeds to date, which is handy for the eavesdropper.

I am immensely grateful to Prashant for introducing me to this splendid book – it reminds me somewhat of the recent US TV series The Americans, which I also enjoyed.

The picture, from the US National Archives, shows First Lady Rosalynn Carter – obviously, not a Soviet spy – with some Girl Scouts in 1977.

18 comments:

  1. About time you featured something I might like to get my teeth into! Haha. Onto the maybe list it goes

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    1. Phew! I was hoping to find something to get the Col seal of approval, what a relief. I do think you'd like this one. It looks like all Wallace's books are available as eBooks - I think maybe his family published them. The titles - and there are loads - nearly all have the form 'The... (something)'

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    2. Just looked his books up, and I can remember us having a copy of The Fan Club around the house, most peculiar and unusual which is why I can still recall it. I think my dad would have sooner gouged his eyes out with a spoon than read that "trash". I don't think is was my mum's cuppa either...my teenage self quite liked flicking through it......I wonder why?

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    3. No, can't imagine. He sounds like a lovely guy but, shall we say, not unaware of the possible effects on sales of a well-placed sex scene. The concept of one called 'The Seven Minutes' springs to mind - do look it up if you're not familiar with it....

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  2. I'm very tempted, but I don't think we're ready for an "Internal Examinations in Books" blog yet... ;-) Still, this author does sounds like rather good fun, and I can't go past a bit of retro Cold War nostalgia.

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    1. It's a bit of a eeewww moment isn't it? But yes, I love a good old-school Cold War thriller, and that's exactly what this is.

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    2. I've just finished reading this - I can see why teenagers would go, Wow... It was pretty amusing too - and the ending (about which I will say nothing) was so satisfactory. Is it possible, too, that two literary topoi from last century - for which one feels nostalgia at their 21st century absence - are the Cold War and proper old-fashioned pubic hair...? It seemed a bit like the author's obsession, anyway! ;-)

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    3. That's a splendid image Vicki. I certainly think the book showed the author's thoughts more than he might have thought. He sounded like an interesting and funny man from what I read about him, even if a bit unreconstructed...

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  3. Moira - Yes, I can well see why the plot would have been appealing to people looking for some 'forbidden fruit,' if I can put it like that. Even if the sex is described clinically, that doesn't mean the topic isn't appealing!! I have to admit that I need to be convinced to suspend my disbelief. But some plots are like that; you can enjoy them best if you just let go and follow along. Not sure I'll try this, but it certainly sounds like an interesting concept for a spy thriller.

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    1. Definitely one to just go along with it if you can! and had a lovely historical feel to it - 1980 was a different world.

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  4. Moira, thank you very much for highlighting my post. I am grateful to you. I'm also glad that you read "The Second Lady" and liked it enough to review it here. I absolutely enjoyed reading your views on it. Not many people remember Irving Wallace today leave alone read his novels. Bizarre as the plot of this book sounds, it was one of the raciest and paciest Cold War novels to come out of the eighties.

    You have to hand it to Wallace for the two sexual encounters you mentioned, I think, involving the real First Lady and the KGB agent on one hand and her impostor and the US president on the other; one clinical, as you rightly said, and the other graceful, if I could put it that way. I'm probably reading too much into it but Wallace has painted contrasting pictures of the two men — the KGB officer is shown as being coarse and uncultured while the President comes across as gently passionate and refined with the woman he thinks is his wife.

    I read this book over three decades ago and I could have got my facts wrong here. What I do remember very well, as if I'd read the book only yesterday, is that little bit of dialogue on the last page. Now imagine reading till the end and finding that critical page missing. It happened to me with "Angels & Demons" by Dan Brown — the book just collapsed.

    Thank you, Moira.

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    1. I am so glad you enjoyed the post Prashant, and grateful to you for recommending the book, which I probably wouldn't have come across otherwise. Your comments on the book are very interesting and illuminating. I look forward to more recommendations from your blog....

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  5. It's Enid Blyton again - by association you are clearly attempting to contaminate my entire childhood reading existence - what next, Patricia Highsmith's opinions on Noddy? :) This book sounds unbelievably stupid Moira but if Prashant says it's a laugh, well... It does remind me of this though: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukptMif-9Xw

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    1. Oh my goodness I love that clip! It could be designed for this book, the film has the style down to a T. And you're absolutely right: the book is stupid, but it's also a really good read and I just really wanted to know what was going to happen with one half of my brain, while the other half was shouting out 'but what about...?' and 'this doesn't make sense!' and 'this would never work..'

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  6. OK, I have to admit that I read and enjoyed Prashant's post but totally missed this book. But what I really want to know is how did I miss it in 1980? Well maybe because that is the year I married Glen; new city, new husband, new jobs (yes more than one that year) ... very big year in my life.

    Moving on, this sounds like great fun. The sex parts included, or at least the idea of them. I will have to find a copy of this book.

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    1. I think you'd like this one Tracy, keep an eye out for it. It's real old school Cold War, and with this bizarre concept and racy style, it's a little gem of its genre.
      It sounds like 1980 was a great year for you....

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    2. I will definitely be looking for The Second Lady. I do not remember if I have read any Irving Wallace. I did watch the film adaptation of The Prize and enjoyed that, and think I will seek out that book too.

      Yes, 1980 was the start of a good new life for me, but so many changes in one year can be very stressful, no matter how good. It was also a challenging year, and I am glad we got through it.

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    3. I just went to look up The Prize, what an extraordinary plot - he does have strange concepts, and titles with The at the beginning!

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