Book review: The Third Woman - a thriller set in an America owned by China
In Jonathan Freedland's thoughtful novel, a mysterious death reveals the dark side of an indebted America increasingly under Beijing's control.
The Guardian's own Jonathan Freedland has written five effective, bestselling thrillers under the nom de plume Sam Bourne. Like its predecessors, the first under his own name inhabits a comfortable middle ground between Dan Brown and Robert Harris.
In The 3rd Woman, the US is in total economic (and, increasingly, cultural) thrall to China. To ensure interest payments are made on America's debts, China has established a military presence, building garrisons at key ports along the west coast. The time frame is hazy, but we seem to be about 10 to 15 years into this occupation. Pollution is out of control but the rioting that occurred early on has given way to grudging tolerance, and in some spheres assimilation has been cordial.
Freedland has great fun building his conceptual exoskeleton. In this LA - one big Chinatown - Hollywood still makes films but all treatments are sent to Beijing for approval. The Chinese ruling elite fills the gossip columns; Mandarin slang peppers everyday speech; and one popular hangout is the Great Hall of the People, a restaurant styled like a Mao-era peasant farm "serving Chinese fusion - dim sum with Waldorf salad, roast duck served with fries - to couples and irony-chasing twentysomethings".
Into this world Freedland introduces Los Angeles Times journalist Madison Webb. When her seemingly clean-living younger sister, Abigail, dies from a heroin overdose, Maddy suspects foul play. And her death turns out to be the third in a series of similar ritualised killings. Maddy's investigations suggest Chinese involvement. So why is the LAPD in such a hurry to dismiss her theories as the ramblings of a grief-stricken flake?
The 3rd Woman was inspired, Freedland tells us, by Martin Jacques' bestselling When China Rules the World, which argues that China has no interest in moving towards Western-style democracy. Rather, its economic power will grow as it learns to operate "both within and outside the existing international system … sponsoring a new China-centric international system which will exist alongside the present system and probably slowly begin to usurp it". With flair and insight, The 3rd Woman teases out the consequences of this usurpation. Jacques suggests, provocatively, that democracy is a "non-essential end" for China. I doubt Freedland would go this far, but a satirical subplot involving the California gubernatorial election shows American democracy at its most cynical and pantomimic.
While Maddy is mostly well drawn, there is something depressing about the obligatory passage every thriller with a female lead seems to have in which she strips to examine herself in the mirror and is relieved to find herself trim and sexy, with "no obvious cellulite on her thighs, no dimpling of fat". You won't find Jack Reacher salivating over his own six-pack.
The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland (HarperCollins)