Some authors want to have it both ways: Write a potboiler, but frame it as a respectable "literary" novel about someone writing a potboiler. With "The Vixen," Francine Prose adds one more layer: The potboiler being edited by her respectable protagonist is actually part of a nefarious plot.

Young Simon Putnam is handed his first editorial assignment by "publishing legend" Warren Landry: a debut novel casting the recently executed Ethel Rosenberg as a "sexpot Mata Hari" — a potential blockbuster to help the publisher over a financial rough patch, supposedly. Simon, thrilled to have the work, is also appalled — about dirtying his fledgling career with such dreck, but also about further sullying the reputation of poor Ethel, whose tenuous connection to Simon's mother is his dark secret (or is it?).

The proceedings are exceedingly strange. Anya Partridge, the novel's alluring author (her look, Landry says, is "Hong Kong brothel meets Berlin cabaret"), resides in a weird asylum of sorts. ("What kind of sanitarium lets its residents decorate their rooms like opium dens and breeze out whenever they want?") While peculiarly incurious about Simon's editorial suggestions, she is wildly interested in treating him to "quick thrilling sex" in unusual places.

Simon's qualms about Anya's novel (also called "The Vixen"), a "three-hundred-page crime against the truth," are quickly subsumed by his own melodrama. "Such was the power of sex," he tells us, that every time they met, "this lie, this crime, this potential crime, seemed more like a misdemeanor."

Soon a week without word from her is nothing less than "heartbreak … a whole new kind of pain, anguish I'd read about but never felt."

It is hard to think of the days of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover as, per Simon, "those more trusting and innocent times." But to believe in Simon, we must. And Simon is certainly innocent — in such an odd, doubtful, wondering way that questioning thoughts often outpace his statements, to the point that in one paragraph alone 14 of his sentences begin with "Maybe."

But as we see in the books and films of those days, with that innocence came a healthy dose of paranoia; and here, too, Prose has worked an amusing inversion: The plot is more paranoid than our well-meaning hero, a sort of editorial Candide. And it may be one of his saddest and sweetest delusions that a novel, then or now, could make much of a difference in the not-so-grand scheme of things.

But then again, "this was not a novel," as he reminds himself, in this novel about a novel, "and I was not its hero."

Ellen Akins is a writer, editor and writing teacher in Wisconsin.

The Vixen

By: Francine Prose.

Publisher: Harper, 336 pages, $26.99.