The Third Lady by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Robert R. Rohmer
Originally published in 1978.
English translation first published in 1987.
Far from his work and family in Japan, Professor Daigo is watching an autumn storm from the salon of the Château Chantal. But it is only when the power is cut that he becomes aware of a woman, also Japanese, to whose elegant melancholy he is instantly drawn.
Intoxicated by the darkness and his desire, Daigo finds himself sharing a secret that his mysterious partner can equal with a confidence of her own: they both want another person dead. Before he knows it, Daigo has struck a bargain that could separate him from this bewitching woman for ever. And it is a bargain of which he barely understands the half…
The premise of The Third Lady may seem somewhat reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s classic Strangers on a Train. Both stories feature characters who, upon a chance meeting, happen to share their secret desire to be rid of someone. Both also feature that moment in which the character we have been following comes to realize that the theoretical discussion they had has been brought into reality and have to decide if they will uphold their end of the bargain. While this work may share some significant plot elements, the way Natsuki presents and develops those ideas ends up feeling quite distinct from Highsmith’s, establishing it clearly as its own work.
The most obvious place we can see those differences is in the way in which the characters find themselves forming that murder pact. In The Third Lady, Professor Daigo is spending time in the salon of his hotel in France when the power goes out, leaving him in the darkness. In that moment he becomes aware that a woman, also apparently Japanese, is in the room with him. Excited by the darkness, her perfume, and the anonymity of their encounter, Daigo talks with her and in the course of their conversation she shares her desire to see a woman she holds responsible for the death of her beloved murdered. He in turn expresses his wish that his superior in his university faculty die for his role in covering up how a candy company was responsible for giving children cancer. Their confidences shared, the pair part before power is restored leaving Daigo with strong, sensual memories of the encounter but no knowledge of the woman’s appearance (beyond her pierced ears) or true identity.
When Daigo’s supervisor is killed just a short while later he suspects that what he had assumed was a theoretical discussion was actually an agreement. Desiring to meet the mysterious woman again, he undertakes to carry out the other murder. As he does so, he wonders who among the people in his victim’s life that woman might be and resolves to try and make contact with her after carrying out the crime.
One of the key differences here is in the tone and motivations of the characters in this pivotal moment in the story. Highsmith pitches her encounter as a moment of frustrated fantasy in which the characters talk at cross purposes, one taking that conversation seriously while the other believes (or convinces themselves) that they are not talking seriously. For Natsuki’s characters however it is a highly meaningful moment, inexplicably linked to a moment of intense but unfulfilled sexual desire.
Where Strangers on a Train becomes a novel of suspense, The Third Lady feels more like a meditation on how someone can be affected by that type of desire. Daigo seeks to kill out of the hope that in doing so it will enable him to encounter this woman again and complete that encounter. By the end of the novel the feverish search to discover the woman’s identity has taken on the same degree of importance as the thriller elements of he plot, incorporating elements of the detective story into the novel.
Another difference I perceive between the two books is the relationship between the reader and the protagonist. Highsmith’s Guy Haines is someone the reader is supposed to relate to. We are invited to understand his frustrations at his situation and why he would be so angry that he might have that foolish conversation on the train, even if his victim – while annoying and obviously tormenting him – makes for a bit of a figure of pity.
In contrast the reader is more likely to sympathize with Daigo’s feelings towards Professor Yoshimi whose crime is clearly a terrible one, particularly as it involves children, even if they disapprove of the ends to which he would go to remove him. Yet the more we see of Daigo, the less sympathetic he becomes. This is not just because the thing motivating him is so clearly a base instinct but that we realize he is willing to throw away his home life based on this one short encounter.
It’s at this point that I probably should say I find the initial encounter the least convincing part of the book. I felt Natsuki did establish the role that the unknown played in elevating the sense of excitement in that moment but the physical components to that scene feel a little contrived. It’s not that I don’t understand the effect that such an encounter might have but that the acceleration of the scene felt extremely jarring in the context of the conversation the pair were sharing.
The other key aspect of The Third Lady which distinguishes it is the emphasis it places upon its story elements. While the reader does follow Daigo as he comes to realize what may be expected of him and as he plots how to accomplish his task, the search for the woman’s true identity is given equal weight. Indeed, as we near the end of the novel it becomes nearly its whole focus. While that is appropriate to the themes Natsuki is exploring, this may disappoint those who come to this primarily for its crime elements as those moments are really minimized in the context of the novel overall.
The book’s later chapters also attempt to add a secondary perspective on the crime as we follow the detectives investigating the murders. This technique is often used to good effect in inverted stories to heighten the tension and produce that cat and mouse game but here it feels like an afterthought with little of importance revealed in these chapters. Indeed these chapters only seem to remove focus from Daigo, slowing down his story while adding little to the narrative overall. I felt that the book might have benefited from just inferring the details of the investigation in conversation with Daigo (as is done quite successfully in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The 12:30 From Croydon).
The bigger problem though with the book is its final destination: a final chapter that feels simultaneously sensational and yet unsurprising. My issue with the way the story is resolved is not that I found it quite predictable in terms of the information learned or that I found the scene that preceded it to be utterly unbelievable on an behavioral level, but that it is the sort of ending where the more you consider it, the harder it is to make sense of how things turned out and, in particular, the mentality of the characters.
I couldn’t escape the feeling that in the end the characters became like dolls, contorted into uncomfortable roles because of the demands of the moment rather than because it fit what we might expect a person to do in those circumstances. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the middle of the book and had been interested both in its concept and also characters.
The Verdict: Natsuki’s novel offers an intriguing twist on a classic mystery concept but I struggled with its awkward, contorted start and finish.
Second Opinions: John @ Pretty Sinister Books reviewed this one over a decade ago, responding not only to the power of its ending but noting its success as a study of the illusions of love and obsession.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This title is not in print at the time of writing so you will probably need to scour secondhand bookshops (my copy set me back $6) or your public library to track down a copy. The copy shown is a scan of the cover of my 1990 paperback edition from Mandarin.