Northern Northanger: McDermid updates the setting from Bath to Edinburgh. Photo: Getty
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Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey and the struggle to breathe new life into Jane Austen

In the next instalment of the “Austen Project”, the Scottish crime writer gives her modern-day take on the novel formerly known as Susan.

Northanger Abbey
Val McDermid
Borough Press, 352pp, £18.99

It is an odd thing, the so-called “Austen Project”. The idea, dreamt up by some clever operative at HarperCollins, is that a well-known novelist produce a contemporary version of each of Jane Austen’s six novels. You can imagine the growing excitement in the marketing department: each volume would catch both the contemporary author’s loyal readers and all those Austen fans. Better still, the series could hook some of those who have enjoyed Austen on the screen but who might find early-19th-century prose too daunting. Joanna Trollope has already “done” Sense and Sensibility; now the crime writer Val McDermid, doyenne of tartan noir, gives us her version of Northanger Abbey, transposed to some kind of present day.

The heroine is the callow, lovable Cat Morland, taken by friends of her parents not to Regency Bath but to contemporary Edinburgh, during the festival (so there are still assembly rooms and balls and Georgian façades). Henry Tilney, whom she falls for, is a young lawyer rather than a vicar; Johnny Thorpe, who assumes she will fall for him, is an obnoxious young City type. And so on. But, as in Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, the narrative follows its original – episode by episode, dialogue for dialogue – very dutifully. We know it must be contemporary because there is a very large number of text messages and references to Cat’s interest in Facebook, but the structure is all Austen’s until a twist at the very end. In the original novel, General Tilney cruelly throws Catherine out of his house when he discovers that she is not the heiress he supposed. In this updating, he is given a more modern (and purely bigoted) reason for turning against her.

It is what used to be called an “imitation”: an updating that is supposed to be all the more pleasurable if you know the original. Yet, in successful instances, the point is as often the deviation from the original as the replication of it. That blissful cinematic imitation of Austen’s Emma, Clueless, is delightful because it improvises its analogies. In Beverly Hills, the thoroughly cool latter-day Frank Churchill character, who loves shopping and looks like a perfect partner for a chic girl, is unavailable because . . . he is gay. Of course!

Readers will find few of the pleasures of deviation in McDermid’s novel, but, if they know their Austen, will keep knowing exactly what is going to happen. And in one respect the old story is hard to update. When Northanger Abbey was published in 1818, the year after Austen’s death, it was with her prefatory note explaining, somewhat sheepishly, that it had been written 13 years earlier and featured “books, and opinions” that had since become “comparatively obsolete”. Composed as a jeu d’esprit when Austen was in her twenties, it preserved the satire on Gothic fiction for which she was now apologising.

It is just this satire that McDermid finds trickiest. You might think that such an accomplished crime writer would relish finding a contemporary equivalent for Catherine Morland’s conviction that she has stumbled on a murder mystery. Austen’s heroine has fed her imagination with Anne Radcliffe’s novels; McDermid’s reads the Twilight novels and a series called Hebridean Harpies, which includes such gems as Vampires on Vatersay and Banshees of Berneray. Compared to these, Radcliffe seems positively Tolstoyan. McDermid is having fun, of course, but her narrative task unfortunately requires her to show that these tales have taken possession of her otherwise delightful heroine’s untutored imagination.

We must believe she could fancy that the stiff, peremptory Falklands veteran General Tilney, who looks “amazingly young”, therefore just might be a vampire. After all, there don’t seem to be many mirrors in the house. Tilney mère is supposed to have died of leukaemia four years earlier, but young Cat “couldn’t help a tiny niggling voice in the back of her head muttering about bad blood and vampires”. Perhaps Mrs Tilney is a prisoner in one of the towers of the former abbey in the Scottish Borders that is the Tilney home? Or perhaps her husband murdered her? Or are the Tilneys a whole family of the undead? Cat may be a callow teenager from deepest Dorset but her delusions are as incredible as they are indistinct.

Austen’s novel is a witty parable about the uses of the imagination; McDermid’s determinedly sportive retelling does not have enough belief in the parable to breathe new life into it.

John Mullan is a professor of English at University College London and the author of “What Matters in Jane Austen?” (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge