Hogarth / Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House has shown considerable adventure in choosing authors for its splendid Hogarth Shakespeare series of novels. For these, the publishers commission top novelists from various genres to write books inspired by and generally following the plots of Shakespeare’s plays. To date, authors have included Howard Jacobson, Margaret Atwood and Tracy Chevalier.
The latest in the series is Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, who brings his version of hard-boiled Scandinavian Noir thriller to a dystopian 20th-century vision of Scotland.
The main focus is on a police department riddled with scandal and completely unable to handle the challenges posed by rival gangs of drug dealers.
Before the 500 pages even start, one corrupt Chief Commissioner of police has been replaced by Duncan, a man committed to fair play and stamping out drug dealing, who perhaps unwisely promises to close down the activities of both the sophisticated aspiring monopolist Hecate and his competition, a bunch of Hells Angels known as the Norse Riders. Before long, the gory death count far exceeds anything that even Shakespeare tried and he was hardly shy when it came to bloodshed.
On the other side of the equation, Duncan swiftly promotes Macbeth, still only in his mid-30s, to become head of Organised Crime, possibly a little joke on the part of the author, who merrily creates a department that is anti- the word anti in word and deed. The appointment is controversial, as much as anything because the new head comes from the wrong side of the tracks, having grown up in an orphanage and then become a hopeless drug addict before being rescued by another copper and noble father figure Banquo.
The man whose nose is put furthest out of joint is Duff, who shared the rough diamond Macbeth’s orphanage upbringing but incongruously hails from rather nobler stock. The pair also share the kind of guilty secret that thriller writers love, although real life does not.
Once Duncan promotes Macbeth, thereby fulfilling a prophecy from three manufacturers of Hecate’s potent, home-made “brew”, there is a tragic inevitability about ensuing events.
Spurred on by his older lover, former prostitute and luxury casino owner Lady, our protagonist sees the chance to become Chief Commissioner rather more quickly than the normal promotion process would permit, cleverly utilising his circus-trained expertise as a knife thrower when the opportunity arises.
In the later stages of the novel, Macbeth and Lady are joined by the villainous and quite possibly literally diabolical Seyton, as they try to preserve their fiefdom against the ominously powerful Hecate and the city's greedy mayor. Although it is hardly made explicit, the action takes place in an unnamed coastal town around 1970, with only occasional forays into Capitol, as likely to be based on Edinburgh as anywhere else.
While Macbeth contains all of the elements of a page-turning thriller, many of them requiring great stretches of the imagination, Jo Nesbø is an adept writer whose style is far above that of many purveyors of this genre.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher