- - Monday, August 11, 2014


By Val McDermid
Grove Press, $26, 386 pages

By Nicci French
Pamela Dorman/Viking, $27.95, 384 pages

Jane Austen must be wriggling in her grave.

There is no question that Val McDermid is an excellent mystery writer. She has riveted many readers over the years with her chilling accounts of serial killers. However, she has little in common with Jane Austen as a woman or as a writer, and it is difficult to understand why she chose to turn Austen’s classic, “Northanger Abbey,” into an adolescent romp peppered with 21st-century teenage jargon. There is probably nothing more difficult than modernizing Austen’s stylized prose and subtle satire without losing the intrinsic Jane. Sadly, Ms. McDermid’s cast of characters come across as silly without being witty.

Catherine or “Cat” Morland is the pretty and addleheaded leading character — Heaven forbid she be called a heroine, certainly not one in the Austen mold — who is obsessed with vampires and horror movies and whose conversation with her peers involves using “like” several times in each sentence.

The plot is minimal. Cat falls in love with Henry Tilney, brother of her friend Elly, while attending the Edinburgh festival. She is invited to visit Northanger Abbey by Elly and her father, General Tilney, who is the patriarch of the family. For reasons that only a 17-year-old probably could understand, Cat is not only thrilled by the invitation, but conjures up a vision of vampires in turrets and the sinister meaning of a bullet hole in an antique chest in her bedroom. The kind of guest few would invite back, she trespasses on hospitality, roaming the house uninvited, and filling it with her flights of lurid imagination, while planning a joint career with Elly in writing children’s books.

It tells you all you need to know about the level of dramatic events when the general sends Cat away on the morning train, not because she is a dreadful guest, but because he has been told she is a lesbian who is in love with his daughter. There is nowhere to go but up after that, although readers may be surprised to know that Cat ultimately marries Henry. It is surprising only because he is one of the few grown-up characters in the book, and you would think he would know better.

Nicci French’s “Waiting for Wednesday” begins as a basic crime, with the body of Ruth Lennox, a mother of three, found dead and bloody in her home. It develops into a mystery so complex that the climax is unpredictable.

Frieda Klein, a London psychotherapist, who is a fascinating and deeply confusing character, dominates the plot, and Ms. French indulges herself in myriad twists and turns that contribute to the maze.

The book opens with the sentence, “There was no sign that anything was wrong.”

Except for the corpse, that is, and the strange behavior of the woman’s husband and children. So Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson turns to Frieda for help in solving a murder for which he can find no motive. The discovery that the apparently mundane wife and mother has been involved in a regular affair with a man whose wife is aware of the situation snarls the skein of the web further rather than disentangling it — especially since the family reacts in an unpredictable way, forming a bizarre attachment to Frieda, who is still recuperating from another murder and investigating other crimes.

The only ostensibly normal character is Sandy, Frieda’s American lover, who not only is understanding, but soothes her various neurotic outbursts by constant reassurance and calls from New York. This may represent saintly patience on his part, but it also makes the reader occasionally question his sanity. Ms. French is deft at constructing a dark and tense mystery, yet it seems as though Frieda has too many personal problems of her own to cope with a new nightmare.

Those in power at the police department do not share Inspector Karlsson’s faith in her powers of analysis and her capacity to see beyond what seems no more than normal. Also among her critics is a competing psychotherapist, who accuses Frieda of burning down his house. Yes, it is complicated. Told by a colleague that it is “funny” to see him working without Frieda, the defensive Karlsson retorts, “I know you had problems with her being around, but that’s been sorted. The chief decided she was out and she almost got killed in the process. Is that the bit that seemed funny?”

In case the reader feels lost, there is an accompanying and even more gruesome crime involving the murders of several young women. Frieda is deeply involved in trying to solve that, too. This would be an ideal book for a long trip where you can sit down and stay there.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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