This isn't a "Washington novel" in the usual sense--neither tariffs nor farm prices are the central issue--but a "love story" for which the capital city forms a more than inert setting.

A bare summary of the plot might suggest the influence of soap operas. But after all, Dickens and Hardy suffer from the same defect. Ginny Longstreet, a minister's daughter from Virginia, is a speechwriter--and a favored one--for President Baxter Stern. When the sudden death of Stern's wife in mid-campaign had dispirited him, and everyone was speculating that he would quit the race, Ginny had written for him what came to be called "the Raven speech" (reference: Edgar Allan Poe) and saved him from disaster.

She is--was?--married to a professional basketball player who has tried to kill himself but succeeded only in destroying his brain. On disconsolate nocturnal walks through her McLean neighborhood she encounters a Mysterious Stranger. He is Jeff Kidd and, unbeknownst to her, is organizing a counterterrorist force for the president. His past also includes a failed marriage. They also share, as southerners, a keen interest in the Civil War and rather old-fashioned patriotic sentiments of a not-very-well-defined sort. Their late-night encounters become a habit. But not until Kidd rescues an aged ambassador, his wife and granddaughter in a bloody, counterterrorist operation at the Washington Monument does Ginny learn more about him. The plot thickens.

Their connecting link, professionally, is John Livingstone, a former television anchor (and household word) who successfully puffed Sen. Stern for president and is now his main man. All their private lives are intruded upon, and almost wrecked, by a scummy reporter-columnist for the Washington Constellation named Sam Emmett. He is a sloppy drunk to whom someone is leaking presidential secrets.

Bomb scares; counterterrorism; rumors of sexual deviation; romance among the cherry trees; the mischievous power of the press; spooks, leaks and White House "plumbing"--the elements are all quite au courant. Wallace must have been reading the newspapers.

Despite this rather sudsy plot, "So Late Into the Night" works as a novel, more or less. The reader is held. Wallace knows how to shift scenes, how to build plot and subplot and tie them together, how to create suspense with teasing foreshadowings of hidden pasts and untold histories.

What he is less good at--it is an old story with novels set in Washington--is the development of character. Somehow, the action here never seems to flow, as if fated, from character. Instead, it is imposed by coincidences that, in turn, are depicted as the consequence of the high-risk life in the fast lanes of the capital. But for a certain intensity and flavor added by the circumstance that both principal characters work for the president, it all could--almost--have happened in Peoria.

I should add, in fairness, that Wallace is less humorless than a bald recitation of his plot might suggest. His nicest touch is to make the otherwise sketchy President Stern a video-games addict. In the upstairs quarters at the White House, the president plays "Space Invaders," though he has the decency to keep the game out of the Oval Office.

It may be unfair for a Washington reviewer to notice oddities in the locale; but "So Late Into the Night" makes a parade of them. In one scene Ginny and Jeff meet in a gazebo on the "edge" of the White House Rose Garden. "In the distance," Wallace's omniscient narrator sees "the dome of the Capitol glow ing yellow in the blackness." But without X-ray vision, that may well be impossible for a Rose Garden observer, even in winter.

"So Late Into the Night" will probably not dislodge Henry Adams' "Democracy" as the consensus choice for best Washington novel. But if you can suspend disbelief--and, at times, your sense of geography as well--it isn't a bad try.