Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

Ex-addict cop Macbeth in a grey town: Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

The Hogarth Shakespeare series has been a fairly up and down ride (which I’ve been reviewing my way through). Some of the modern novelisations of Shakespeare’s plays have worked better than others, as might be predicted. With Macbeth, Jo Nesbo goes for a direct approach. From the title (unlike the others in the series, this new version isn’t renamed) to the plot, this is recognisably Macbeth. The title character is updated to an ex-drug addict cop in a town beset by two major gangs, corruption, and drugs, in a relationship with Lady, the proprietress of one of the town’s two casinos. As expected, it doesn’t take long after a bloody drug bust for Macbeth to see a chance to rise rapidly up the ranks. Whatever it takes.

Macbeth as a gritty crime thriller perhaps isn’t all that surprising. One notable element is the lack of the supernatural: in Shakespeare’s play, the otherworldliness is one of the most memorable elements, from the weird sisters to visions that could be madness or magic. In Nesbo’s version, Hecate is a crime boss and visions come from drugs and trauma. Macbeth isn’t so much caught up in fate as caught up in the world of gangs and police corruption, where promises are made and broken and allegiances quickly cast off. Some will be disappointed in this grittier focus, but it foregrounds the fact that it only takes a few suggestions of potential power to push Macbeth forward, even without the showmanship of the supernatural.

The large cast of characters are woven together as questions of who is a traitor to who run throughout the novel. This element feels very Shakespearean; it is, like with many of Shakespeare’s plays (and indeed as with many crime novels), easy to forget who is who to begin with. Macbeth has an extended past with Duff, giving the novel a central relationship that is far more powerful than Macbeth’s with Lady (Macbeth), who in this version seems downplayed.

Nesbo has created a solid rewrite of Macbeth, placing the titular figure’s ambitious and bloody story amidst a grim drug-stricken landscape. Perhaps impressively, one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays becomes a long novel. Sometimes it drags, but a lot of the time the length is to follow conventions of the crime genre: following numerous characters through set ups, personal problems, and remembrances of their tormented pasts. Using a specific genre gives this addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series a sense of purpose, a reason for existing that highlights how the original play is similar and different to a crime story.