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Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

I have read several of Jo Nesbo’s crime thrillers and enjoyed them all, so I was delighted to see that he was going to take on the Hogarth Shakespeare retelling of Macbeth. Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson are among some of the others who have taken on retelling the Bard.

Macbeth is the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies but this book is a good 500 pages long. If I had to find one fault it would be the slow start. In the play Macbeth and Banquo meet the three witches in Act 1 and their prophesy of Macbeth’s accumulated power is delivered. In this book it is about 70 pages before we reach that scene and all that time is spent filling in the back story and sorting out who is who in a complex police department. Once we know more of Macbeth’s motives the story starts to pick up pace, until by the end we are in a breathless rush to turn the pages. It certainly gets good, and the reader is wrapped up in the action.

It is hard to date exactly where this story is placed. Somewhere in the sixties or seventies at a guess. I don’t know my car or motorbike models well enough to date them exactly. There are certainly no mobile phones and people authentically still look for phone boxes. We are in a land that seems to mix the names of Scotland and Scandinavia, with Fife and Inverness, as well as a ruthless motorcycle gang called the Norse Riders. The location is a bleak city, ruined by corrupt politicians, drugs and gambling. You have to leave the city to breath some fresh air or feel the sun. I like the claustrophobic feel that lends to the action.

Macbeth is the head of the Police SWAT team whose ambition is to rise through the ranks and take on the mantle of Chief Commissioner. Perhaps he even wants to be mayor. His motives seem legitimate, to clean up the city and remove the drug gangs. But, inspired and cajoled by his ambitious wife “Lady”, he begins to plot the murder of those that stand between him and holding the positions of ultimate power. His dark secret is a drug-addicted past, so that when Hecate offers him a new cocktail of drugs, and especially one called ‘Power’, he falls all too easily back into the dark past he had wrestled with. There is no real rationale for his sudden change, before the events in this book he has been happy with his gradual rise through the ranks and earning the loyalty of his men. Suddenly all he can see is a rocketing path to the top that he can only win by murdering his colleagues.

I like the characters in the this retelling, they make very plausible villains with their complex motives and often shady pasts. The setting of a police department, with its plethora of corrupt officials, also works well in the tense atmosphere of organised crime. Had Shakespeare been a contemporary writer I am sure he would have been using the same settings for some of his work. The shady underbelly of society and the dark characters that dwell there. Running drugs is a perfect modern day crime to fit this ancient story.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Hogarth Shakespeare, RRP $37


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