The Third Child
Aeleta Nichols | Pyramid Books | 1971 | 188 pages
After the death of her mother, Lynn Alva discovers a strange letter along with her few possessions. The letter, written to her late mother by Mrs. Rachel Payne, thanks her for her friendship and laments their treatment of a mysterious “third child”. Driven by a curiosity to uncover new details of her mother’s life, Lynn travels from California to the Ironwood Estate in New York to meet its governess, Mrs. Payne, and question her about the letter.
The wheelchair-bound Mrs. Payne explains that Lynn’s mother Martha was not only her personal nurse, but also a dedicated friend who saved her life. But before elaborating any further, Mrs. Payne changes the subject, explaining to Lynn that she needs the services of a secretary-companion to write light correspondence and perform other small tasks. Even without a real direction in her life, Lynn nonetheless surprises herself by accepting the position. Leaving the estate, she wonders why Mrs. Payne showed such reluctance to discuss her mother—and discovers that the letter was not returned.
Settling into Ironwood, Lynn is introduced to a long line of relatives, all with barely concealed hostility towards other members of the family. She notes that several branches of the family tree seem to have candidates for the identity of the “third child” referred to in her mother’s letter. All seem to be on edge for the imminent arrival of Mrs. Payne’ daughter Grace, who is being released from a ten-year stay in a mental hospital after a family tragedy resulting in the death of Grace’s sister, Rosemary. The Payne family believed that Grace’s husband, Matthew Sperry, was complicit in the death of their neighbor, Kyle Frazer, who was the object of childhood crushes by both Payne girls, leading to Rosemary’s suicide and Grace’s nervous breakdown.
The hostility Lynn notices at Ironwood climaxes in an attempted murder, when the brake lines in the car she is driving are cut, nearly leading to a fatal crash. Mrs. Payne would have normally been riding in the car, and an accident would have been a repeat of a previous crash that years ago put her in a wheelchair. Lynn realizes that she is living in the midst of a power struggle for the future of the considerable wealth of the family business, with the life of Mrs. Payne and the future mental health of her daughter Grace determining the outcome.
The Third Child pushes Lynn through a tepid inheritance drama, before culminating in a brief murder mystery. Although numerous red herrings arise surrounding the central question of the “third child”, the true identity is a foregone conclusion—even if the ending makes a coy attempt at not providing a final reveal. Ultimately, the unanswered question contained in the letter should not have been compelling enough for Lynn to navigate the murderous maze at Ironwood, and for her to learn its purported lesson on the nature of family.