Forming part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth is a masterclass in how to keep your reader gripped, even when the tale you’re telling is so well-known. It’s never been one of my favourite plays to teach (I think I have to thank KS3 SATs for that), but this version, set in a vaguely modern-day Scotland (there’s a reference to the atomic bomb being dropped 25 years earlier), sets up the tale as the proper, full-on thriller I suppose it always has been. Situating the action amongst policing divisions makes the corruption and intrigue feel so much more recognisable, thanks to countless tv series alone, than a battle between warring clansmen might do.
There are obvious issues which Nesbo has had to tackle in updating the story of murderous ambition – forensic science, for a start – and he does this well. The modes of killing are more varied, but the motives are the same, even if they’re oiled with hard drugs – this is a city in the thrall of criminals and drugs lords – and it desperately needs a good man, a simple man, to hold things together when Chief Commissioner Duncan is found dead. But this Macbeth, head of SWAT when the story begins, is a troubled individual, heavily dependent on his wife, Lady, for his sense of purpose. She herself has suffered in her teens but is now a powerful business woman in her own right (and that old question about her past is answered in Nesbo’s story). Their relationship is more moving than productions of Shakespeare’s play sometimes allow, and their descent as a couple is intimately recounted here.
Duff gets a bigger role, and a decent backstory, than Shakespeare’s Macduff, and at times it almost felt as though this was his story instead. As Macbeth’s childhood friend, Duff knows him well, and is able to start piecing events together early on. The competition between the two men works well, and Nesbo’s exploration of the corrupting nature of power is fascinating. Not many come out this well. Having said that, when the finale comes (and the prophecies are handled well, I thought), I cheered on those who had mustered against the increasingly disturbed Macbeth. I forgave the odd jarring phrase (Lady’s use of ‘suckling’ to describe a baby was a tad anachronistic) because I was gripped by this centuries-old tale of murder and corruption made utterly anew. Good stuff!