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Macbeth by Jo Nesbo – A Gritty Crime Thriller


The hardest part for any crime writer while working on adaptation of Shakespeare’s 400-yrs old tragedy, especially, in today’s age of advanced forensics and medical technology is to provide credibility to a series of supernatural events; prophecies, visions, witches, mysterious figure of Hecate, and supernatural abilities of Seyton.

In Macbeth, another book in Hogarth’s Shakespeare series, Jo Nesbo has kept certain supernatural elements of the 11th century tragedy in his 20th century crime thriller intact, and that could be the part a bit hard to digest, especially, for fans of hard-core contemporary noir. To the fans of realistic crime fiction, the murder of police commissioner Duncan would appear completely over the top and the ease with which Macbeth got away with it could be viewed as incredulous at the best. The book neither does full justice to contemporary crime fiction nor completely succeeds as a perfect copy of the original play.

To justify Macbeth’s paranoia and hallucinations, which was absolutely crucial to Shakespeare’s play, Nesbo has used ‘brew’, the drug to which others are also addicted. But in doing so, Nesbo has lost original play’s allure; the paronia that pushed Macbeth over the brink of insanity in the original tragedy resulted from his endless lust for power while his conscience nudged him many times whereas Nesbo’s Macbeth suffered delusions because of drug abuse. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is never a cold-blooded killer. He is a man driven by ambition, while his conscience tries to fight against his lust for power. But Nesbo’s Macbeth is nothing but a heartless killer. The transition from an honest man with morals to a cold-blooded killer is never gradual; it happens abruptly, making Macbeth a contemporary crime thriller and nothing more.

Like Shakespeare, Nesbo set his story in Scotland, but rather than taking his readers back to 400-years old Scotland, he places it somewhere around late-mid seventies of 20th century. The city in Nesbo’s Macbeth is an industrial city, a desperately grim place. It is ravaged by drug crisis, gang warfare, unemployment, corruption, and environmental hazards. The future looks grim. People do not dream. No one hopes for the best.

By keeping gang warfare at the centre of his story, Nesbo succeeded in bringing out the ferocity and extreme violence of fighting which was the pivotal point of Shakespeare’s original play. Like the original, it is easy for anyone to lose one’s morals in Nesbo’s adaptation; a world of immorality where loyalties are constantly vacillating and greed for power and prosperity is everlasting.

Nesbo is a master storyteller; there is no doubt about that. What Shakespeare kept insignificant, Nesbo picked it up and moulded it into something significant; the character of Caithness for example–in the original play, she didn’t have much space, but Nesbo’s Caithness has a significant presence and a major role to play with others when it’s time to bring down Macbeth. Whereas Shakespeare left certain events to people’s imagination–Lady’s child who died was a reality or no–the reason Macduff (Duff in Nesbo’s Macbeth) abandoned his family–the person who put the idea of killing Duncan originally in Macbeth’s mind–Nesbo has gone ahead and addressed these issues leaving nothing to readers’ imagination.

The book is hard to get into at first, and then, Nesbo’s attempts at switching to Shakespeare’s poetic magnificence, make it a harder read.

Overall Nesbo’s modern day adaptation will appeal to fans of dark crime fiction, but readers looking for classic elements of Shakespeare’s tragedy in Nesbo’s work will be disappointed.









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