MacBeth by Jo Nesbo

by Edith Cody-Rice 

I am not a regular reader of Jo Nesbo crime thrillers but I must say his novel The Snowman scared the wits out of me. perhaps the reason I have not read much more of his writing. I wanted to read his new story MacBeth just out of curiosity about what he would do with this theme.

Jo Nesbo is a spectacularly successful Norwegian crime writer. His books are published in over 50 languages and his publisher claims he has sold over 36 million books worldwide.  Mr. Nesbo comes from a storytelling family but began adult life with aspirations to be a professional soccer player until an injury ruined those ambitions. So he went back to school and eventually became an economist and stockbroker instead. In the evenings, he founded a pop rock band which became very successful in Norway. He happened on writing by accident when he was asked to write a book about touring as a musician. When he sat down he decided instead to write about the only topics that Danish novelist Aksel Sandemose said mattered – murder and love – and he has been writing about them every since – 15 novels not including his latest. His books, from the very first attempt, have been best sellers and prize winners in Norway and the broader Scandinavia and are avidly read around the world.

Macbeth is a retelling of the Shakespearean play MacBeth, set in modern times in a town in an unidentified country. The capital of this country is called Capitol, in other words a fictional place a little like Jan Morris’ Hav in  Last Letter from Hav.  All of the Shakespearean characters are there — but as police officers in the local police force. MacBeth is a detective; King Duncan is Commissioner of Police Duncan; Banquo is an older police detective and father figure to MacBeth; King Duncan’s son Malcolm is Malcolm, the second in command at the police force; the Shakespearean thanes Lennox, Angus, and  Caithness are fellow police officers – Caithness here a woman. Lord MacDuff is Duff, a detective and childhood friend of MacBeth. The witch Hecate is a male drug kingpin and Lady MacBeth is Lady, the owner of a casino with the name of the Shakespearean MacBeth’s castle, Inverness.

For those of us who know this play well (didn’t we all study it in school), the story as told by Nesbo is a curiosity. We know the ending. For those who haven’t read MacBeth, it may read as a true thriller, but it feels contrived and so it is. It is a stretch to kill so many fellow officers for the sake of becoming Commissioner of a police force in a town.  And beheading Banquo is a tad medieval for western Europe in this day and age (not that we haven’t become newly aware of beheadings in the last few years). Whereas Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his wife harbour unbridled ambition for large stakes; Detective MacBeth goes to extremes for relatively trivial stakes.

Nesbo does include interesting social comment in his characters. The town is rundown and decrepit since the loss of its main industry, a factory producting a toxic substance. It is riddled by despair and addiction. Ostensibly, MacBeth wants to take the town over to make it great again.

Unlike the MacBeth of history, Detective MacBeth is not nobility but an orphan who has climbed out of a drug addicted youth with the help of Banquo and whose talent initially earned him the love and respect of fellow officers. He is promoted precisely because he is from the wrong side of the tracks: to make the townspeople feel that not only the elite rise in rank in the town. Duff is also an orphan and Lady, the casino owner, earned her living as a prostitute before rising by her own talents to own an opulent gambling palace. The ambition, however, is clearly hers and Macbeth sets out on his murderous campaign to satisfy her lust for power, just as in the play.

Drugs take center stage in this novel, for the battle against crime and corruption centers on the drug trade in town and addiction is recurring problem for several of the police officers. There is blackmail, adultery, sex, perversion, murder. The novel has it all. All the women are gorgeous, nubile, talented, brainy and sexually available, except one who is the counterpart – the fresh, loving, patient and loyal wife. I have come to the conclusion that crime writing for men is fantasy, not merely fiction: a combination of action and available sex with beautiful women, occasionally with a good loyal patient spouse in the background. Really gentlemen. It gets rather tiresome for the female reader. Shakespeare wrote a play that still has punch 400 years later and I don’t recall any sex scenes with Lady MacBeth.

All that said, for fans of Jo Nesbo, this is a rather interesting read, if not a compelling novel. It is rather fascinating to see how he manages, however awkwardly,  to incorporate elements of the play into the book – even  MacBeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy and a stand in for Birnam Wood.

published by Afred A. Knopf Canada

446 pages