It must have seemed a good idea to someone: commissioning a range of well-known novelists to ‘reimagine Shakespeare’s plays for a 21st-century audience’. The first six novels have come from irreproachably literary authors of the calibre of Jeanette Winterson (The Winter’s Tale) and Margaret Atwood (The Tempest).
Now, however, we have something a little different: Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian crime writer, has recast Macbeth as a thriller, allegedly set in 1970, though this timeframe should not be taken too literally. The plot is very loosely connected with Shakespeare’s.
The location is a crumbling city in a dystopian country where many of the names have a Scottish ring. Prostitution, gambling and above all the drug trade are now the only industries that flourish in this decaying town. Its rulers are corrupt local politicians and the chief commissioner of police. The latter, Duncan, is an upright officer, a new broom sent by the government in faraway Capitol to sweep the city clean. His job is Nesbo’s equivalent of the crown of Scotland.
In this version, Macbeth is a former drug addict who is now Duncan’s protégé. He has risen to become the hardbitten but honourable head of the police SWAT team. ‘Duff’, Malcolm and Banquo are among the other Shakespearian characters who re-emerge as police officers. Sometimes the transformations are surprising. Caithness, for example, is now a woman police inspector who is having an affair with Duff and at one point floats about in a negligée.
Macbeth is passionately in love with an older woman — the red-headed Lady, who runs the Inverness, the city’s classiest casino, with steely efficiency. Hecate is the city’s leading drug manufacturer, whose ruthless commercial efficiency has turned thousands into addicts. The chief of the three witches is a striking transsexual.
Nesbo is best known for his ferociously successful ‘Harry Hole’ series. His version of Macbeth has many of the same qualities — strong, unsubtle characters, a driving narrative packed with set-piece action sequences and a surreal, cartoonish quality that often has more to do with Gotham City than Glasgow.
Whatever the novel may lack in psychological subtlety, it more than makes up in shoot-outs. The climax is a particularly splendid affair involving Gatling guns, a decommissioned locomotive named Bertha Birnam and a lethal chandelier.
When the bodies have been carted away and the blood mopped up, what’s left? Nesbo has produced a sprawling, often confusing thriller which may not have a great deal to do with Shakespeare’s play but at least bursts with a rude imaginative vigour of its own.
A for effort, then, and indeed for prolixity. Nesbo’s Macbeth takes 503 pages to do what Shakespeare does, in my edition of the play, in 86. It’s a cruelly unfair comparison but I know which I prefer.