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Book Review

‘Northanger Abbey’ by Val McDermid

Val McDermind.
Val McDermind. Mimsy Moller

As part of a new series reimagining the novels of Jane Austen (including Joanna Trollope’s version of “Sense and Sensibility,” Alexander McCall Smith’s variation of “Emma,” and Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on “Pride and Prejudice”), this edition pairs venerated Scottish crime writer Val McDermid — more often associated with blood and gore than with bonnets and balls — with Austen’s posthumously published “Northanger Abbey.”

It turns out to be an inspired choice. The unmitigated pleasure here is the obvious relish with which McDermid relocates Austen’s Regency England tale of romantic intrigue in Bath’s high-society circuit and imaginatively-spun Gothic intrigue at a rural abbey to 21st-century Britain.


McDermid deftly transforms original protagonist Catherine into Cat; the high-octane, interactive Edinburgh Book Festival seamlessly takes the place of the social pressure-cooker of 18th-century Bath; ghastly John Thorpe, Catherine’s unwanted suitor and brutal horse driver, becomes ghastly Johnny Thorpe boasting ad nauseam of his tricked-out, horsepower-heavy car; tartan silks replace sprigged muslins; and the isolated titular abbey of the Tilney family now sits comfortably in the remote Scottish Borders.

It’s been clear for years now just how contemporary a writer Austen remains, her observations on relationships, money, and societal mores as relevant as ever, her spot-on satire and sparkling dialogues evergreen and entertaining.

McDermid’s success lies in her ability to allow her version of “Northanger Abbey” to dovetail tidily and enjoyably with Austen’s original while infusing it with her own humor, wit, and style.

Bath’s engaging cityscape transitions remarkably well into Edinburgh’s Georgian and medieval streets. The modern update means that Cat has read Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” as well as “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” and her fascination with horror, fantasy, and the supernatural in fiction is naturally fed by contemporary YA tomes of “Harry Potter,’’ “The Hunger Games,’’ and, above all, the vampire-infested “Twilight’’ series.


But McDermid also conjures up the fictional “Hebridean Harpies” series — “Vampires on Vatersay,” “Banshees of Berneray,” “Shapeshifters of Shuna,” “Killer Kelpies of Kerrera” — that makes a sublimely perfect stand-in for the Gothic novels of death and dark secrets that enthralled Austen’s Catherine.

Austen’s early reference to baseball gets a tip of the tam-o’-shanter here, and the various platforms of social media substitute nicely for the reams of journals and epistolary communications of Austen’s time.

In a particularly cheeky move, Cat’s mother’s lack of concern about the dangers of city street life — mirroring Catherine’s mother’s attitude in the original — is ironically underscored by the tidbit that she is an avid reader of real-life Edinburgh crime writers Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson.

McDermid’s “Abbey” kicks off in the best tradition of a charming rom-com. Cat and Henry Tilney meet-cute at a dancing lesson, sharing easy laughter and an immediate connection: “Henry was the right sort of tall. . . . He didn’t have the confected good looks of a boy-band member but his face was compelling and memorable. Heroic, even, Cat allowed herself to think.”

He also, in Cat’s active imagination, gives off just the faintest whiff of being a vampire — as does the rest of his family. Bella Thorpe, Cat’s first fast friend in Edinburgh, is the embodiment of 21st-century annoyances, speaking like someone out of “Made in Chelsea,” a British reality TV series following the dramas of the young, rich, and spoiled (“Totes amazeballs”), and harboring not-so-sneaky ambitions that expose social climbers for what they are no matter the century.


Propelling the plot along, as Cat develops a steadier friendship with Henry’s sister, Ellie, McDermid utilizes Victorian formality of manners and mannerisms to expose a strictly dictatorial approach to family life.

It’s good fun watching McDermid enjoy herself as she sprinkles in references to the likes of Beyoncé and — believe it or not — “Harriet the Spy.” Long before Cat is off to the Tilneys’ abbey, long before our modern-day crime author draws a final, canny ace from her tartan sleeve, you’ll have succumbed to the delights of Northanger à la McDermid.

Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.