Book review: The 3rd Woman

SET in an ‘alternate’ present, in a US very much in thrall to the People’s Republic of China so that the latter has a say in the national affairs of the former, with military bases all over the country, The 3re Woman is Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland’s first work of fiction under his own name.

Jonathan Freedland

HarperCollins, £7.99 

Under the pseudonym, Sam Bourne, Freedland has written several bestselling novels. (I am new to Freedland’s/Bourne’s fiction, but am a huge admirer of his political commentary and arts criticism; for instance, his recent review for The Guardian of David Cesarani’s biography of Disraeli is a remarkable piece of writing).

Madison Webb, the novel’s 30-year-old protagonist, is a writer for the LA Times. She has been showered with prizes for her investigative journalism and has a reputation for going to great lengths for her story.

When her younger sister, Abigail, a gentle, music-loving school-teacher, is found dead — apparently as a result of a break-in — Madison becomes convinced that Abigail is the killer’s third victim. And that a serial killer is at large in Los Angeles.

CCTV footage retrieved from a downtown club, in which the officers of Garrison 41 (a Chinese military base in LA) like to drink, proves that Abigail left the club with a man who is probably a soldier. 

Madison also deduces that the killer’s victims share the same profile: Blonde hair, attractive, pale skin. 

She quickly collates her findings and, via access codes received from her editor years before, publishes on the LA Times website her unauthorised feature, citing a Chinese connection to the murders. 

This upsets both the newspaper’s editors, who disown the article, as well as influential Chinese business people in the city.

Disguised as a blonde-haired nurse, Madison enters Garrison 41 with Dr Hughes (who is known to Madison) under the ruse that one of the officers may be poisoned with strychnine from some bad heroin — a type known as heroin #3, traces of which have also been found in the bloodstreams of the victims. 

She becomes convinced that the serial killer is one of the “Princeling” Chinese officers — one of whom is the son of Yang Zeng, the outspoken Party apparatchik about to become president in China. 

She soon realises, however, that this is itself a feint, a cover for the real killer: The recently elected chairman of the Republican party in California, Ted Norman, whose own blonde-haired daughter died a few years before of a heroin overdose following the trauma of being raped by Yang Zhitong. 

The killings are, after all, a vengeful attempt to frame the Chinese officer.

Madison herself is a skilfully drawn character, sympathetic and complex, and her relationships with her mother, and sister, Quincy, are equally well-depicted. 

However, the novel’s plotting is dense and at times cumbersome and, overall, the story is a long time in the telling (at 452 pages).

The pace picks up significantly in the last third of the book, once Madison enters Garrison 41, and from this point the reader is eager to know who the killer is and what has happened to Madison — whose ruse is rumbled by the ice-hearted Dr Lei.

Overall, Freedland has written a robust, intelligent thriller. It’s a formulaic work (a flawed protagonist with much personal tragedy, multiple obstacles, and false resolutions, an “orgy of evidence” pointing in the wrong direction, each chapter ending on a cliff-hanger).

As in Laura Van Den Berg’s recent book Find Me, there’s a convincing dystopian tone to the world of the novel, and there’s much evidence, too, of Freedland’s trademark erudition: The reader learns a lot about the machinations of a high-profile broadsheet and of American politics.

There are some clunky sentences, such as “sleeplessness could generate its own dreams, even in the daytime” — and some fine ones: “She would not bury another secret, so that it lay rotting in the ground, forever mined by worms and maggots.”

The timeframe of events is too short for Freedland’s dense and episodic storytelling — at a mere week — and the tag-on at the end, of how Madison was responsible for her father’s death, is a good addition to Webb’s personal backstory but might have been more deftly sign-posted.


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