Sex, Power, Murder, Sex: Art Imitates Life Again

Silk Lady by Gwen Davis (Warner: $17.95)

There's a riveting, stunningly relevant plot line in "Silk Lady"--somewhere. It's just a matter of extricating it. While slogging through the sorry sex, the Robin Leach deco tour of New York and Beverly Hills, and the Styrofoam philosophy ("It won't be the same, but it will be . That's what life is about"), there is a taut thriller going on.

It's a kind of "Parallax View" of accumulating corpses as the U.S. power structure covers up information that others keep trying to uncover. With magnificent timeliness, the secret information being covered up in this novel is that shipments have been made of faulty parts that might cause disasters in the aerospace industry.

In addition to all of the above, "Silk Lady," Gwen Davis' 13th novel, is also a roman a clef, as subtle as Patti Davis' first book, but not as brave. In the first few pages, it's an easy guess that leading character Miranda, the doomed young mistress to a middle-age confidante of the President, is based on Alfred Bloomingdale's mistress, Vicki Morgan, who was killed in the summer of '83.

Miranda's death in bed with a tabloid publisher happens early on, then there's a long, distracting wait for those inevitable porno videotapes to show up. It isn't until the last pages that they do, and rather than the surprise it's meant to be, it's merely the other shoe dropping.

Sex is not a substitute for insight. "Silk Lady" has lots of the former, little of the latter. But it seems that Miranda engages in sex--bondage and domination, to be specific, as the book assuredly is--to get control of men. Nothing new there. But ultimate control remains in the hands of the men in power. That's not a bulletin either. Nor is it pivotal to the other plot line in the novel.

Whatever Miranda's life and sexual practices--a runaway at 16, a mother at 17, and picked up as the mistress of a married millionaire four decades older than she--it has little to do with the ominous mystery going on. It is the publisher Miranda is in bed with, not Miranda herself, who is the target for the contract killers. She's merely an innocent (so to speak) bystander in the cover-up killings. It doesn't quite compute.

But if a roman a clef is fun for its own sake, there's also Claire Avery, beautiful TV newswoman. Her death in a car that runs into a river bank during a rainstorm is an echo of Jessica Savitch's death in 1983.

Segues are as quick and cute as a TV movie, or they're non sequiturs.

Even the author sometimes gets lost. In scattering celebrities' names throughout the book like confetti, she puts Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas on a yacht together in 1973 when it was actually Jackie on deck at the time.

Yet there's a tongue-in-cheek quality to "Silk Lady" that comes close to lifting it from its genre.

There's also a writer among the characters, and Gwen Davis has him imagining the promotion for his book--or is it her book--about Miranda: " 'Phil Donahue.' All those callers phoning in, shaking about bondage. . . . Maybe they could get four or five girls from a B&D; club, in their corselettes and boots. . . ."

But for all Davis' winks to distance herself from the people in the book, she comes through loud and clear when her character is rationalizing the exploitation of dead celebrities: "At least they hadn't died for nothing. Some great truth would emerge . . . truth, and a book that was No. 1."

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