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Macbeth by Jo Nesbo, book review: this Shakespeare retelling disappoints

The latest in Hogarth's Shakespeare series by contemporary novelists, this updated ‘Macbeth’ may please fans of Scandi noir – but it isn't likely to appeal to admirers of the original 

Lucy Scholes
Wednesday 04 April 2018 11:51 BST

Jo Nesbo sets his retelling of Shakespeare’s blood-drenched tragedy about a power-hungry couple in a grim, unnamed Scottish town that’s fallen on hard times. Although the time is specified as the 1970s – 25 years after the end of the Second World War, tendrils of both allegiances and betrayals from which still clutch at those left – there are few other details to date the scene, and the overall ambiance is distinctly dystopian. The town is plagued by unemployment – its factories now abandoned, its once magnificent railway now disused – and drug use had skyrocketed.

Local kingpin, Hecate – purveyor of “brew”, a potent blend that turns its users psychotic, cooked up by three weird sisters – is up against the Norse Riders, a biker gang pushing their own dope. Meanwhile, attempting to take them both on is Duncan, the newly appointed chief commissioner, a man tasked with cleaning house, his predecessor’s corruption having known no bounds.

Enter Macbeth, fashioned in the image of the now immediately recognisable policeman teetering just on the right side of the law, battling demons in the style of Nesbo’s famous detective anti-hero Harry Hole. He’s an abused orphan and ex-drug-addict-turned-head of swat and a dab hand with a blade. The partner who spurs him on in his dark deeds in this version is Lady, the beautiful and seductive owner of the town’s casino, Macbeth’s “beloved dominatrix”; a woman with plenty of skeletons in her own closet, many of which, as we’re well aware, will soon return to haunt her.

Of all the pairings in the Hogarth Shakespeare retold series, matching the king of Scandi noir with this most violent and dark of the Bard’s works seemed in theory one of the most promising. In the book’s defence, Nesbo makes excellent use of all the atmosphere of his genre, and the stakes at play are every bit as convincing as those in the original. Overall though, it disappoints.

Fans of Nesbo’s previous work will be pleased to learn that there are enough exciting set pieces – drug busts gone wrong, car chases, and shoot-outs – to keep the narrative moving. Unfortunately, admirers of Shakespeare’s original won’t, I suspect, be so easily entertained.

Nesbo – ably translated here by Don Bartlett – swings awkwardly between language that attempts rarification – “For eternal loyalty is inhuman and betrayal is human” – and something more plodding. “You tricked me into coming here so that you could kill me and dump me in this canal,” observes one victim banally. Swat-related context acknowledged, I still couldn’t help but laugh at the description of Macbeth getting himself “into the zone” to murder Duncan.

Even more confusingly, the speed with which the action descends into a bloodbath – one gruesomely described violent death after another – seems near farcical, yet at the same time, at 500 pages, the book never seems to end. This is especially true of the final showdown, which, despite supposedly being an action sequence, crawls along at a snail’s pace. This is Nesbo doing what he’s good at, but it’s no great addition to Hogarth’s list.

‘Macbeth’ by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett, is published by Hogarth, £20

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