The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland - book review: Prepare yourself for a convoluted yet gripping journey

The novel explores the tensions between a dying superpower and an arrogant, newly rich challenger

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The Independent Culture

Just over half way through Jonathan Freedland's new thriller, The 3rd Woman, I was beginning to feel as irritated as its heroine, the investigative LA Times journalist Madison Webb.

After being led on yet another wild goose chase, Maddy – determined to solve the mysterious deaths of her younger sister and two other women – is getting mightily frustrated. Her rage stems from the thought that "she had wasted so much time, a full day chasing down a useless, blind alley." Similarly, I knew that I would never be able to claw back the hours I had spent reading The 3rd Woman. Would it be worth it?

Set in a near-future America, in which China has set up a series of mini satellite states in the western ports, the novel explores the tensions between a dying superpower and an arrogant, newly rich challenger. From the onset it's clear that Freedland – a Guardian journalist and author, under the pseudonym Sam Bourne – wants us to believe that the Chinese are the bad guys.

It seems their influence is ubiquitous in Los Angeles. An aspiring screenwriter gets his script rejected because Beijing thinks it will not resonate with the Chinese market. The rich Chinese expats live in roads free from potholes, which pockmark the rest of the city. And, most sinister of all, the soldiers who live in the LA garrison of the People's Republic of China are protected by diplomatic immunity. Madison suspects one of its members of being a serial killer responsible for the murders of her sister Abigail, and two other blonde women, but it seems the authorities are powerless to act.

When her newspaper refuses to support her theory, Madison decides to branch off by herself to solve the crimes.

The book is marred by an over-reliance on the use of cliffhangers to close each chapter, and unconvincing sentences such as, "He had gasped when he saw the original weib [a tweet]: Latest on murder of Abigail Webb, possible Chinese connection? Literally gasped, out loud." And although Freedland populates the novel with strong female characters, I felt that occasionally the writing tipped over into the murky territory of objectification.

The plot is full of holes – for instance, it is never really explained why Abigail, a teacher, moonlights as a table dancer at a bar frequented by rich Chinese playboys – and littered with coincidences. Yet despite all these issues, Freedland has a knack of keeping the reader gripped. The twists when they come – and boy do they come – are genuinely surprising. "You could stay afloat on adrenalin when there was a prospect of a breakthrough," the author writes. The same could be said of this novel.

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