Book Review: Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth

Because I do love copying Bardfilm so much, and I saw that he published his review of Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth (for which, as he likes to say, q.v.), not only did I decide to publish mine, but I just went ahead and copy-pasted that ø character from his site instead of trying to figure out how to do it myself.

Seriously, though, I have been reading this one and did plan to review it this week, the timing is a coincidence. (The ø thing is totally real, though.)

This book is part of the Hogarth series of modern novelizations of Shakespeare. The only other one I’d read was Hag-seed (for which, q.v.!  it’s fun to say!) which I’d been told was the best of the bunch, and I didn’t love it.

I think Macbeth is a better book, but at the same time it left me very, “Meh.”

You know how Sons of Anarchy is about a motorcycle gang and based on Hamlet?  Start there.  Seriously, that’s exactly how this one starts. Only it’s based on Macbeth.  Macbeth and all the characters you know and love are part of the pretty corrupt and really violent police force, trying to either take down or work with (depending on who you ask) the bad guy drug dealers and motorcycle gang, led by Hecate.

The good news is that the author went ahead and just left all the names the same. So there’s no guessing about who is who, or wondering whether a certain character represents a blend of several.  They’re all here, right down to Lennox, Angus, and Caithness. This makes for a rather odd story because it doesn’t sound realistic in the slightest. I don’t recall there being any mention that this story was taking place in Scotland, but I’m not sure that would help.  Macduff lives in Fife.  But the local casino, run by Macbeth’s girlfriend “Lady”, is called Inverness. It’s like the author had flash cards with all the relevant names on them, spread them out on a table and said, “Ok, how can I connect these dots?”

Despite the change in setting, the plot moves forward exactly as you’d expect, which is ultimately where I get the “meh” from. I already know what happens in the original. I want to know what the author has added to make it fresh.  The answer here is lots of gunfights and explosions and chase scenes.  Which makes for a fine movie I suppose, but that’s not why I read books. I want to know about the characters.  What angle are you taking on a particular character that’s going to make me think about him differently? Who is going to behave differently because of the different path you set them on?  The answer here is, nobody and not much.  At the time of this writing, I’m a little more than halfway through but other than one interesting thread with Malcolm that didn’t really go anywhere, I haven’t been terribly surprised.

There is one bit of lazy writing that I’m pretty disappointed with.  Our Macbeth happens to have a special skill.  He could have been a professional knife thrower.  Seriously. Several times it’s mentioned that he coulda shoulda been in the circus if he hadn’t been a cop. He carries his daggers around in special sheaths and uses them several times very early on in the story.  So when Duncan is ultimately murdered by multiple stab wounds (spoiler alert? are you kidding me?) and the rest of the cops are all, “Hmm, we have no idea how this could have happened!” I thought surely the author could have come up with something better.  “But we found the bloody daggers on the body guards!”  That’s great…. in a land where everybody just naturally carries their own personal dagger.  But in a story where literally the only guy ever to be mentioned in association with daggers is Macbeth? Come on.  There’s not even a shade of “They deliberately used daggers to frame Macbeth,” which maybe might have made sense.

I say this is a better book because you know what you get, and if that’s what you like, great. The author doesn’t try to do anything deep here. I described this to my book club as Sons of Anarchy meets Breaking Bad and heads in the direction of that Batman movie that had Bane in it.  If you like that kind of style where nobody ever really knows when you’re going to piss off the wrong person, even if it’s the chief of police, and a dozen innocent people are going to end up dead?  Everybody’s watching their back, and no one trusts anyone? Then you might well like this one.  The original Macbeth definitely has its fair share of that. But I don’t read Shakespeare for the gun fights and car chases.


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