Book review: Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth is a good cop gone rogue
Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo spins Shakespeare’s famous tragedy about political ambition into an entertaining thriller.
Norwegian crime writer, Jo Nesbo’s latest novel, Macbeth, is the seventh book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which eight bestselling novelists each re-tell one of Shakespeare’s popular plays.
The project started in 2015 with British writer Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (A Winter’s Tale) and includes authors such as Margaret Atwood (Hag-seed/The Tempest, 2016), Anne Tyler (Vinegar Girl/The Taming of the Shrew, 2016) and Gillian Flynn (Hamlet, 2021).
Most of Shakespeare’s plays, including Macbeth, have been widely retold and adapted for screen, stage and print across the world. The attraction of such a project then is not so much about another re-telling of a well-known story, but mostly what the celebrity author in question will do with it.
One of the most popular crime fiction writers at present, Nesbo is best known for his detective Harry Hole series though he has written four equally successful standalone thrillers (Macbeth being the fifth). Such is the fame of his alcoholic detective that Oslo Tourism started Harry Hole walking tours in the city.
But what makes Nesbo a good choice to re-tell Macbeth is that the themes central to Shakespeare’s tragic play about ambition — such as the nature of evil, struggle with inner demons, the question of choice, violence, greed, loss and self-destruction — are also ideas that Nesbo frequently explores in his work. Not surprisingly then, in his hands, Macbeth becomes a thriller which can be enjoyed independent of the original.
Nesbo takes Shakespeare’s play out of Scotland and sets it in the 1970s, in an unnamed town crippled by a drug problem, gang wars, unemployment and corruption. The novel, however, begins on a note of hope with good cop Duncan taking charge as chief commissioner with his retinue of honest men, which includes SWAT unit head Macbeth.
Besides being an efficient and popular officer, Macbeth is also a survivor who has put a troubled childhood and drug addiction behind him to start afresh with Lady, the charming owner of a local casino.
The fear of a crackdown under Duncan’s regime pushes druglord Hecate to set a trap for Macbeth and Lady. The bait is a prophecy which promises absolute power. As in the play, so in the novel — everything goes downhill from here.
Nesbo had said earlier he was glad to have snagged Macbeth in the Hogarth project. Not only is it his favourite Shakespeare play, it also met his requirement for a “short and simple plot” around which he could build his story.
That is exactly what he does in the novel — stick to the blueprint of the original plot and yet, by adapting it for a specific milieu, he makes it his own story.
The novel gives Macbeth and Lady traumatic backstories. While the emotional baggage may make them more real, it dilutes their motive and takes away the universality of the original story about unchecked ambition. An uncontrolled greed for power and ruthless ambition — as in the original work — are far more admirable as motives than a sob story of what messed one up as a child. No self-respecting villain would want to be pitied.
The question of choice also remains. The portrayal of the murderous couple as victims of their society does not take away from the fact that they chose to take the path that turns them into monsters.
Despite all the blood on his hands, Shakespeare’s Macbeth elicits sympathy. He is conflicted about what he does and his actions bring him zero happiness and enormous suffering. But it is hard to feel sorry for Inspector Macbeth despite his misery and doomed struggle with madness. He comes across as a petty dictator, brought about by an engineered coup that eventually becomes a shameless pursuit of power and tapers out in bloodbaths. As someone who started at zero and worked his way up, his letting a criminal manipulate him with ease comes across as self-destructive and foolish.
Nesbo’s novel is finely plotted and highly entertaining. He creates an original world with flesh-and-blood characters and still manages to organically recreate iconic scenes (including the one with the three witches) from the play. It takes great skill to tell a story people already know and make them read it with dread and anticipation.
Macbeth has sufficient references to the play that readers familiar with it would enjoy. But even if you haven’t read it, the novel will be just as captivating if you don’t mind the blood and gore and a steady body count. Unlike the play, the murders in the book don’t happen offstage.
By Jo Nesbo
Publisher: Hogarth Shakespeare/Penguin Random House