Another from Hogarth Shakespeare’s contemporary retellings, the internationally bestselling Jo Nesbo turns his crime-writer hand to Macbeth. Turn the kingdom into one worn-down town ruled by the mayor and police chief commissioner, turn the soldiers into SWAT officers, turn the witches into drug-addled and -peddling women of the night, and you have a story very definitely Shakespearean and comfortably in Nesbo’s realm.
I have chosen not to read every retelling in the Hogarth Shakespeare series but just the authors whose work I already love, like Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson. I have read a lot of Nesbo – namely his Harry Hole series – and have loved their clever Nodic noir world. And Macbeth is full of smart parallels and twists between Nesbo’s strengths and the existing text.
“When a drug bust turns into a bloodbath, it’s Inspector Macbeth and his team who clean up the mess.” He’s the best cop they have, but he’s also an ex-drug addict with a troubled past. Macbeth is rewarded for his success – the power, money and respect he never thought would be available to a man like him all seem within reach. But hallucinations and paranoia start the unravelling as he desperately grasps for what he thinks is rightfully is. I really enjoyed that the cover, the blurb, the pitch of this book is just like any other Nesbo thriller. The town that needs saving, the archetypal lead who is good at his job but has a dark past, and then how it all begins to fall apart.
It is a dark, dystopian world Macbeth and his fellow cops inhabit in a non-specific late-20th Century-type setting. Due to some unspecified pollution, it is always grey skies and the rain is endless. The drug plague is at epidemic proportions – but it is nothing known in our world but instead something altogether different, with names like power and dream. The corruption is staggeringly endemic. There are some oblique references to the Hiroshima bomb, so this is potentially an alternate path humanity could have taken.
But amongst all that there are some very essential human tales – sex, power, desire. These most critical elements of existence are what is most powerful in the story and of course an element of why Shakespeare’s original version has lasted so long. It doesn’t matter the packaging – be it a heath in the early 1600s or a cop shop in an alternate modern reality – once you get past the surface details Shakespeare and Nesbo are drawing out some particularly dark and yet essential elements of the human condition. Particularly, in this version, desire of all forms and its corruptibility.
Considering the demons Macbeth battles, Nesbo’s shadowy Nordic noir is a good setting for a retelling. There is grit and dirt, but these basest elements are needed as detail when you’re interrogating the very depths of one man. Even though you know the ending, it reads like a good Nesbo thriller: a cloak-and-dagger cop drama with incredibly high stakes.