Macbeth (Hogarth Shakespeare), by Jo Nesbø

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jo Nesbø, Hogarth, and Crown Publishing for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Contributing to the Hogarth Shakespeare collection, Jo Nesbø has created a modern retelling of the Bard’s Macbeth. Set around 1970, the story opens with a police raid on a local gang running narcotics. When the authorities bungle things exquisitely, leaving blood and bodies scattered around the clubhouse, heads must roll within the police force. During the shake-up, Macbeth is brought on as the new head of Organised Crime, set to turn his men into a respectable arm of the force. Learning of her husband’s new position, Lady Macbeth encourages her husband to continue his climb, which is further supported by a high-level crime boss, Hecate. During one of Macbeth’s visits to Hecate, three substance-altered prostitutes foresee Macbeth’s rise to the position of Chief Commissioner, at the top of the entire police force. With a number of officials ahead of him, Macbeth is unsure how he will accomplish this, happy to run Organised Crime for the time being. Lady Macbeth can see a clear path to the top and knows her husband has it in him, if only he will bend the rules to better his chances. She convinces her husband to murder the current Chief Commissioner and frame another official, which he agrees to do while under the influence of narcotics. From there, one murder begets others to cover-up the trail being left. Even when the sought-after position is achieved, neither Macbeth or his wife are satisfied. However, their paranoia force more cover-ups and the need to constantly look over their shoulders. It would seem that power is the most addictive drug of all, one that cannot be sated by a simple snort or needle. Might the rise to power lead to a devastating crash into oblivion? Nesbø weaves quite the tale, using the framework Shakespeare made famous, providing his fans and those who enjoy the Bard’s work quite a great story. Hogarth did well picking Nesbø to explore this dark tale.

Nesbø has quite a dark side when writing for his adult audience, though is also well-versed in creating police thrillers that keep the reader engaged. Some love his writing—as well as the darker side of crime that emerges from the narrative—while others find his work too dense to enjoy, as it is not easily digested. I found myself straddling both camps here, though was able to forge ahead when I gained enough momentum (and time to read!). Macbeth is, of course a central character in the piece and Nesbø does a wonderful job portraying this man as someone who is in touch with his passions, but soon becomes swept up by all the power that is laid at his feet. One can only presume that it is the influence of his power-hungry wife and the influence of narcotics that led him down such a difficult path, one that would be paved in gold, only to reveal tarnished brass by the end of the book. Other characters emerge to support and block Macbeth’s climb to power, adding depth and flavour to the narrative, including those who see Macbeth for the corrupt leader he becomes. The story is strong and ties nicely into the original narrative laid out over four centuries ago. Using the same characters and most of their fates, Nesbø stays true while also modernising the story in an effective manner. Fans of Shakespeare will surely find their own weaknesses, but in an effort to entertain effectively, Nesbø is spot-on with his storytelling. Mixing short and longer chapters, the reader is able to develop a connection to the story and its characters, as long as a steady momentum is kept. As with all Nesbø pieces, the translation does not take away from the power of the message found within and, if anything, provides an even stronger piece.

Kudos, Mr. Nesbø, for another excellent piece of writing. While your style is an acquired taste, those with the patience for it are surely in for a wonderful adventure.

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