Macbeth: Jo Nesbo

Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett

A town in Scotland where the sun never breaks through the clouds, pollution hangs heavy, unemployment is high and people are in thrall to a potent drug called the brew, manufactured and sold by the drug lord, Hecate.

This is the setting for Jo Nesbo’s grim, gritty reworking of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.[1]  He turns it into a police procedural, set around the 1980s (I think).[2] Macbeth is the head of the town’s SWAT team. A former drug addict, he is well-liked and respected by his colleagues. The new police commissioner, Duncan, wants to clean up the town by getting rid of Hecate. This isn’t going to be easy: Hecate’s tentacles spread deep into the town, and many in the local government and police are in his pocket.

As the book starts, Duff, a police inspector, has been tipped off about a large shipment of drugs arriving at the port. Thinking that he would get all the credit if he pulls it off by himself, he does not inform Duncan and turns down Macbeth’s offer of help. But things go wrong, and Macbeth—who is there with his team, including his trusted friend, Banquo—saves the day.

Walking back from the raid, Macbeth and Banquo are stopped by two women of indeterminate age with ravaged faces and “cold inscrutable [eyes] that don’t let you in, that only reflect their surroundings”. The women are joined by Strega, a man-woman in leopard-skin tight, who works for Hecate. The women predict that Macbeth will become head of the Organized Crime Unit and then Chief Commissioner. He dismisses them but then, as soon as he gets back to the police station, Duncan makes him head of Organized Crime. This is the beginning of the end for him: as Strega says to Hecate, “If people see the soothsayer’s first prophecy fulfilled, they’ll believe the next one blindly”.

Macbeth shares the day’s events with Lady, the beautiful owner of a posh casino, with whom he is in love. Lady, who is more ruthless and more ambitious than Macbeth, sees an opportunity to consolidate power and persuades Macbeth to murder Duncan. At first horrified by the idea, Macbeth eventually buys into Lady’s argument that together, the couple can do a lot of good for the town. (At least that’s what he tells himself.) He murders Duncan and takes over his job as Chief Commissioner, fulfilling the women’s prophecy. But the murder opens the door to his addiction. He takes a bit of the brew to get his courage up for the murder, and he is hooked. The drug fuels his paranoia, and the murders spiral out of control. Lady is made of sterner stuff but she has her demons too, and gradually, they both start to unravel.

Meanwhile Duff has realized what is going on, and is on the run from Macbeth. He joins up with other cops who take the fight to Macbeth. But will getting rid of one man really get rid of the endemic corruption?  

Nesbo sticks quite closely to the original. There are some nice touches: the brew is concocted by the two ravaged women from their secret recipe said to contain “toad’s glands, bumblebee wings, juice from rats’ tails”—like the witches’ brew. Naming their boss Hecate echoes the play too, where she is the goddess of witchcraft. Hecate in the book does not need witchcraft to cast his spell over the town: all he needs is the brew.

The betrayals in the novel feel more visceral than in the play. Macbeth is a character we are familiar with: the incorruptible cop who breaks the rules and gets results. So when Macbeth agrees to kill Duncan, he goes against the stereotype (I did think he agreed a little too easily, though).  Banquo is not a contemporary of Macbeth’s as he is in the play—he is the man who took Macbeth in as a child and gave him a home, which makes Banquo’s murder even more shocking. The bond between Macbeth and his nemesis, Duff (the Macduff character in the play) is also something Nesbo has added. The two men were at an orphanage together and know each other’s secrets. This creates an intimacy but also an uneasy relationship, which brings more depth to their conflict.

Nesbo underlines the filth in the town: the moral corruption is reflected in the weather and the pollution, unlike Fife a short distance away, which is bathed in sunlight. But the men living there choose to do so, as if too much light will expose them for what they are. The book opens with rain, following a single raindrop as it finds its way down to the main characters, a device Nesbo uses again at the end.

This is a book about power, which is the real drug here. Everyone is on the make and will stop at nothing to further their own ends. It fits right in with the world Nesbo has created in his other books. I found it compelling: the violence could be appalling but I couldn’t tear myself away from the story. I usually have trouble with books where none of the characters are sympathetic. Not here.

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[1] Macbeth is part of a series commissioned by Hogarth Press, a contemporary reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays. Margaret Atwood’s reworking of The Tempest, Hag-Seed, and Jeanette Winterston’s reworking of The Winter’s Tale, The Gap of Time, have also been reviewed on this site.

[2] Before cell phones, at any rate.

3 thoughts on “Macbeth: Jo Nesbo

  1. Pingback: The Gap of Time: Jeanette Winterston | Talking About Books

  2. Pingback: Hag-Seed: Magaret Atwood – Talking About Books

  3. Pingback: Dunbar: Edward St Aubyn – Talking About Books

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