Translated by Don Bartlett
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers (but fewer than usual, because I try really really hard not to spoil mysteries or thrillers). On that note, goodreads users appear to have categorized this as a mystery, which it’s not. I mean, really, a man nails his commanding officer in the neck with a knife and people need help identifying the guilty party. I fear goodreads has reached a new low.
Buckle up, kids, cus it’s storytime. I’ve been meaning to write this review since I first read this book in July 2019, but, though my heart was in the right place, my brain really just wasn’t. Fast-forward past a little over a year of thinking “God, I should really review Macbeth” and you’ll pretty much catch up to the present day, where you will now find me laboriously attempting to scrape together a coherent review after having read the book a second time. I feel like I should probably add that I got interested in the book again after making my mom read it and listening to her commentary, after which I naturally held off on my reread until I’d also reread the original play. Sorry, Macbeth. I swear I love you.
Macbeth is the most recent installment of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, an international project in which Shakespeare’s best-known works are retold by modern authors. In this retelling, Macbeth is a police officer in a grimy, nameless town – presumably in Scotland – where two major gangs fight for control over the town’s druggies. One gang is headed by Sweno, a biker who imports foreign drugs; the other is led by Hecate, the town’s leading drug producer, who has built himself a considerable amount of wealth and influence through the sale of a homemade drug called brew. A former addict himself, Macbeth is an orphan mostly raised by fellow officer Banquo. Having kept clean for the last several years, he is now the head of SWAT and is in a relationship with Lady, the iron-willed owner of one of the town’s two casinos. He is also a giant thorn in the side of Officer Duff, a prickly friend constantly in search of personal glory. After the death of Chief Commissioner Kenneth, a corrupt despot who ruled the town with an iron fist, the police force is reorganized; a man named Duncan takes over as the new Chief Commissioner, and Macbeth is appointed head of Organized Crime, a position that Duff covets. Following his promotion, Lady persuades Macbeth to kill Duncan and insert himself as Chief Commissioner, and, well, things rapidly go downhill, as they are wont to do in any Macbeth retelling. Drawn into a tightening spiral of drugs, paranoia, and power, Macbeth loses all sense of himself and quickly becomes ensnared by Hecate, who uses him to eliminate Sweno’s entire gang. Meanwhile, Duff realizes that Macbeth is behind the neverending string of murders, but is forced to go on the run when Macbeth massacres his family. After finding help in unlikely quarters, Duff returns and ultimately defeats Macbeth, or is defeated by him, depending on how you take their final scene. Through it all, both Macbeth and Duff are dogged by Officer Seyton, who has a taste for violence and isn’t quite human. The clue is in the name, in case you’re curious.
It never would have occurred to me to retell Macbeth as a 1970s police thriller, but it just works so well. The setting and the story are unbelievably dark and disturbing. I feel like this is usually where people start to throw around the word gritty, which of course goes hand in hand with the original play. The play itself is everywhere; it is infused with every part of the story, if you know what you’re looking for. (I admittedly did not know what I was looking for the first time, but I did the second time.) There are, of course, some shrewd updates: the three witches are drug chefs employed by Hecate; Malcolm is the rightful heir to the Chief Commissioner post rather than the rightful heir to the throne of Scotland; the Dunsinane prophecy now revolves around Bertha, a defunct steam engine, rather than walking trees; and Macbeth’s final soliloquy, delivered upon the death of Lady Macbeth, is attributed to Lady herself and modified to sound like something a modern woman might actually write.
Tomorrow, tomorrow and tomorrow. The days crawl in the mud, and in the end all they have accomplished is to kill the sun again and bring all men closer to death.
Here’s the original, in case you weren’t forced to read this at literally the worst age for literary appreciation:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
While the Hogarth Shakespeare books I’ve read so far have been excellent on their own, this is probably my favorite aspect of the series: the literary treasure hunt. I’m a sucker for a good literary treasure hunt, which just goes to show you that people can change because at sixteen I couldn’t have cared less. And then, of course, there was the most important part:
“Oh yes? Haven’t you heard? No man born of woman can kill me. That’s Hecate’s promise, and he’s shown several times that he keeps his promises. So do you know what? I can just get up from here and go.” He tried to lever himself up into a sitting position, but the weight of the chandelier pressed down on him.
“Hecate forgot to take me into account when he made you that promise,” Duff said, keeping an eye on Macbeth’s left hand. “I can kill you, so just lie still.”
“Are you hard of hearing, Duff? I said—”
“But I wasn’t born of woman,” Duff wheezed.
“No. I was cut out of my mother, not born.”
Macbeth would’ve been great in any case, but its crowning achievement was getting me to like Duff (which, incidentally, I rank at about the same level of rudeness as that time Game of Thrones got me to like Jaime Lannister). He really grows on you over the course of the book, turning from adulterous gloryhound to family-deprived antihero. The moment he returns to his shattered house to find the bodies of his wife and children was incredibly well done; likewise his final showdown with Macbeth, who still manages a partial victory even in defeat.
And, in the end, none of them win: Macbeth loses everything; the police force is left with a huge mess on its hands, including Sweno’s brother, who has sworn vengeance against the entire town; and Duff fights so hard to be better than he is but finds that, in the heat of the moment, nothing can override sheer instinct. In this way the retelling is darker and more poignant than the original, which – if one disregards the pile of dead bodies – ends on a relatively hopeful note, if not an especially happy one. Behold where stands/Th’ usurper’s cursèd head, Hail King of Scotland, and so forth. Shakespeare ended it there but Nesbø clearly had other ideas, and it does rather make me wonder if there is or is going to be a Macbeth sequel in the works. For the record, I really hope there isn’t because Macbeth is just fine on its own, but if there is one eventually I’ll still read it.