Review | Macbeth, Jo Nesbo

33952851In this latest addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Jo Nesbo reimagines Macbeth as an urban drug war with Duncan the Police Chief Commissioner out to clean the city and Macbeth the SWAT Team leader gunning for his job. The result is a fast-paced, gritty thriller that feels real, emotionally complex, and contemporary.

Nesbo replaces the three witches and their prophecies of Macbeth’s future with gang members reporting to Hecate, a drug lord who controls the city and some of its most powerful residents with his potent cocktail called ‘brew’. What fate appears to have decreed in Shakespeare’s original, Hecate orchestrates in Nesbo’s novel, seeing in Macbeth an opportunity to redirect the police force’s focus to a rival drug lord who specializes in heroin and in turn maintain his own hold on the city. Later in the novel, his team develops a new, more powerful drug called ‘power’, and the metaphor is a bit too on the nose to be clever, but I like his characterization overall, and as a villain, he’s ruthless enough to power a full series of Ian Rankin-type detective fiction.

From high school classes on Macbeth, I remember a lot of the ‘good’ characters being morally upright. Duncan was a good and beloved king, Banquo was an upstanding citizen, and even Macbeth was more a weak man who fell prey to fate and his wife’s ambition than a morally corrupt man in his own right. So I was glad to see the ‘good’ characters being much more morally ambiguous in Nesbo’s version. Duncan was indeed moral in that he was committed to eradicating drugs in his city, but it’s unclear how much he knew and chose to ignore the corruption around him. It’s also unclear how much his promotion of Macbeth was based on merit and how much it was a political move to cement his reputation as someone not susceptible to cronyism (more on this later).

Moreover, Macbeth’s own ambition was more evident here, and any demurring about power feels suspect. Lady (here, the powerful owner of a hotel and casino) still has to prod him to commit murder, but the fact that Hecate sees him as a viable target in the first place shows that he isn’t quite as incorruptible as I remember from the Shakespeare original. When we first meet him, he has taken his team on a rogue assignment to provide backup if needed to a drug bust that his professional rival Duff has set up. His motives may be partly admirable (to ensure the drug traffickers are apprehended), but there also seems clear desire to be the one who saves the day.

While Macbeth’s fall from morality is still the core of this story, it’s Duff who I thought really shone as a character in Nesbo’s take. The Macduff I remember from the play was more an anti-Macbeth foil, whose actions mostly took place offstage. Nesbo’s Duff is a lot more dynamic and complex. He’s an orphan like Macbeth yet he managed to make it into privileged social circles. More than even Macbeth and Lady, Duff burns with ambition and has carefully tailored his career to lead him into Duncan’s inner circle and position himself as a future Chief Commissioner. Unfortunately, this backfires on him when Duncan decides he can’t show any appearance of favouritism in choosing a second-in-command and needs to promote someone who hasn’t supported him in his rise to power. Worse, his ambition leads him to make some bad decisions on his job, which in turn leads to him botching the drug bust at the beginning of the novel and giving Macbeth an opportunity to step in as a hero.

I absolutely love Duff’s story arc, and empathized so much with his (ultimately self-sabotaging) desire for recognition. Nesbo shows us more of Duff’s role in investigating Duncan’s death and seeing Macbeth as a suspect, and I love that Duff’s interest in the case isn’t just based on moral reasons but also inextricably linked to his own ambition and professional jealousy. He’s a complex, complicated figure, and so much more real than I remember from the original.

Moreover, I love how Nesbo has created this world with such depth. Whereas fate and one couple’s ambition dictated the crimes in the original, Nesbo’s novel clarifies (for me at least) how much of a role the environment plays in shaping the events of the story. Macbeth, Duncan and Duff all navigate a world that is already rife with poverty, corruption and crime; the crimes of individual characters seem almost inconsequential in comparison. Even if Hecate and the other drug lord are defeated, even if Duncan stayed on as Chief Commissioner, would that have solved the problems of their city or would other drug lords or other forms of corruption simply take their place? It’s a question with no clear answer, yet it’s possibly the reason this novel feels so contemporary. We can imagine this city existing in today’s world, and we are all too aware of how much work is needed to change it and how little the effects of such change can feel in the immediate future. Possibly as well this is why Duff resonates so much with me, because he’s a hero I can imagine existing in real life, whose heroism is compromised yet no less effective. Many of the other characters benefit as well, feeling much more complex and real than I remember from the original.

Nesbo’s Macbeth is a powerful tale and just a thrill ride of a read. I love how the books I enjoyed in the Hogarth Shakespeare series are good in such wildly different ways. Nesbo’s Macbeth is certainly one of my favourites, possibly second-best only to Margaret Atwood’s Hag-seed, and I highly recommend delving into it yourself.


Macbeth will be published in April 2018.

Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada and Netgalley for an e-galley of this book in exchange for an honest review.


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