Reviews: Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth

Look, this isn’t a literary blog — in the sense, I’m not going to write and expound on how great “literature” is. I love to read, and I will read almost anything. That being said, I am also a teacher, and as a teacher, I have a certain, incomprehensible fondness for Shakespeare. Sometimes, you come to like the very things your students “hate.” Is it spite? Old age? General resignation to teaching “required” reading? I don’t know, but I love, love, love Macbeth, and it’s not even a play that I teach.

Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth is a bloodier, grittier adaptation of the original. It is Macbeth if Macbeth were a police inspector. It is Macbeth if Scotland were simply a grimy, industrial city, Inverness a casino, and the famous Birnam woods a train. Mind you, a train that has not moved in years for the city where Nesbø’s Macbeth opens has seen better days. The railroad has stopped running. The factories have closed. The unemployed and dope addicts (a familiar refrain throughout the novel) swamp the streets. Everything is dark and gritty, right down to the weather. As Macbeth rises to the top of the police hierarchy — eventually becoming acting chief commissioner, he seeks to bring the city back to the “golden age.” But like the original, his own paranoia and need to please Lady (the book’s stand-in for Lady Macbeth) lead not to his triumph but to his own downfall.

What I Loved

Alternative books titles for Macbeth: Never Listen to Your Wife.

It’s Macbeth. Maybe it’s that this is the work I most clearly remember from 12th grade English. Maybe it’s that I taught this as part of my assistantship in France. Maybe it’s that one of my colleagues HIGHLY, HIGHLY recommended this author. Whatever the reason, I love Macbeth, and I knew I wanted to start my reading of the Hogarth Shakespeare project here. If you are going to start that series, why not start with something you know?

The book is very well-paced. It goes without saying that the authors who are a part of this project are well-known in their given genres. I’m not a huge fan of “crime noir” (is that even a thing?), but I loved the twists and turns, especially as the plot really got going. Although many will know the plot of Macbeth, I liked that not all of the book was predictable. It really felt like a “crime drama” with all the respective “I can’t believe it’s him” reactions.

It gives a lot of side characters their due. I thought that the side plots were well-developed and brought the characters to life where appropriate. Duff doesn’t disappear and then just show up at the end to save the day. I also liked the interwoven connections between characters. It made the reader really understand why Lady acted the way she did or why the relationship between Banquo and Macbeth was so important. The play, by its nature, doesn’t have the opportunity to provide this level of backstory — at least not in the script itself. Nesbø does a good job of taking what Shakespeare has written and making it his own.

What Didn’t Work For Me

Lady Macbeth, or most of the female cast. Of all the characters in the play, I don’t think Lady got her due. There was no “out, out damn spot,” only vague hints of her slowly sinking into madness and no one knowing why. I don’t want to spoil it, but of all the female characters, the only one who really got her due was Caithness. I liked the role that she played in the ending, if nothing else.

This is a gritty, crime drama Macbeth. I know that Macbeth is an inherently bloody tragedy. Murder happens almost immediately in the original. But what I like about the play is the intrigue, the humanity of the characters, not the constant spilling of blood (I actually think it might be weird if I did like that). So, adding more murder and bloodshed? Not really my thing. Adding drug addiction and street crime? Again, this fits the genre, and this is why I don’t typically read this genre.

The frequent, highly detailed descriptions of the weather. Why do we need to follow the journey of a single rain drop across the city? I’m still unclear on this narrative technique, but hey, if it works for you? Do it.

Overall Recommendation

Macbeth is perfect for anyone who loves Shakespeare, crime dramas, or both. It combines the two into a well-oiled machine (ha! did I really just say that?), and it attempts to add something new to the tragedy. The beginning is a bit slow, but it picks up as the characters become more entangled in intrigue and betrayals.