A speculative thriller of a Sino-driven LA?

The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland

3rd womanGuardian journalist, Jonathan Freedland has previously written thrillers as Sam Bourne, but for his sixth book he dropped the pseudonym.

Possibly, this was because his book is dedicated to his older sister Fiona who died of cancer in 2014, (read a touching article about their relationship here), but that is pure speculation on my part. (I got it wrong – see here, but the other link above is well worth reading – Ed).

The 3rd Woman is set in Los Angeles, but it’s not quite the LA we’re used to. The very first sentence of the prologue intrigues…

It was the last day of January and the New Year was approaching.

LA is winding down for the Chinese New Year holiday, whenbeautiful, blonde Abigail Webb is attacked entering her apartment after work. Her attacker tapes her mouth, cable-ties her arms and injects a massive overdose of heroin into her, killing her quickly.

Meanwhile, LA Times journalist Madison Webb has been working undercover in a sweatshop. ‘These days the big Chinese corporations found it cheaper to make goods in LA than in Beijing or Shanghai, now that their won workers cost so much.’   She escapes the factory, writes up her big scoop which’ll go to press the next day. Time to celebrate with her friends Katherine and Enrica at a club where a group of loud young men are entertaining a group of mostly blonde young women:

She hadn’t realized the Mail Room had become a favoured hangout for that set, the pampered sons of the Chinese ruling elite who, thanks to the garrison and the attached military academy, had become a fixture of LA high society. Soon these rich boys would be the officer corps of the PLA, the People’s Liberation Army. PLAyers, the gossip sites called them. (p20)

Later her doorbell rings at 2am. It’s Jeff Howe, a detective with whom she’s been on a couple of dates but not let it go further. Knowing Madison, he volunteered to bring her the bad news of the death of her sister. As you might expect, Madison’s reaction is to throw herself into investigating her sister’s murder with everything she’s got. She has no time for grieving, leaving that to her older sister Quincy, who can’t comprehend Madison’s need to do this.

LA is also in the middle of campaigns to elect a new state Governor and both parties will use Abigail’s murder as political propaganda, and Madison will get nowhere with the investigating detectives who seem to answer to higher powers.  However, due to her high profile as a respected journalist, she is contacted by Mario Padilla whose sister Rosario, another blonde, was murdered under similar circumstances, but being a humble cleaner wasn’t investigated thoroughly.  Soon it turns out that Abigail was the third girl to be murdered. There is a serial killer on the loose and as they piece together evidence, it seems that all fingers point to the Chinese garrison, but the LAPD aren’t listening…

Freedland, by re-imagining the USA as a former economic superpower in thrall to a new one, creates a superb air of unease throughout this thriller. By treaty with the US Government, China has established a string of ‘pearls’ – military garrisons along the West Coast. Under the terms of this special relationship LA in particular has seemed to be assimilating well, with Hollywood studios now having to turn to Beijing to green-light productions.  Otherwise, life seems to go on as normal, although the Chinese ‘Princelings’ under their diplomatic immunity seem to get away with too much.

It almost seems incongruous that traditional election campaigning can go on under these circumstances, but it does. The candidates have to be more careful than before about what they say though.   The two sides are forced to take positions over the Abigail’s death and the progress of the official investigation. This sub-plot is linked further by one of the campaign managers being an old boyfriend of Madison’s.

Madison, as stereotypical middle child, has tried hard – and succeeded – in making a name for herself which doesn’t always make her totally likeable, yet her dogged determination wins the day, so to speak. What you’d hope for in a journalistic sense (see my thoughts on the film Spotlight here).  On a human level, I wasn’t totally convinced about the relationships between the three sisters; Quincy seemed too cliched as the big sister propping up the family while Madison ran wild, (and she does have a few of her own cliched moments), but this is a minor quibble.

It was however unusual to read a thriller by a male author with three blonde and beautiful corpses that had so many strong living female characters! In addition to the sisters, there were also: Jane Goldstein, Madison’s editor in chief; Elena Sigurdsson, the underdog Republican candidate; plus Madison’s best friend and computer genius, Katherine.

Freedland’s not-quite-dystopian vision of a near-future America dominated by a foreign power made an interesting setting for a well-crafted thriller full of twists and turns which I enjoyed a lot. (8/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you

Jonathan Freedland, The 3rd Woman (Harper, 2015) Paperback, 454 pages.

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