Jo Nesbo – Macbeth

Scandinavia’s king of crime turns the tragedy into a deliciously oppressive page-turner

120866955Set in a run-down, rainy, industrial town, Macbeth centers around a police force struggling to shed an incessant drug problem.

Duncan, chief of police, is idealistic and visionary, a dream to the townspeople but a nightmare for criminals. The drug trade is ruled by two drug lords, one of whom a master of manipulation named Hecate – has connections with the highest in power and plans to use them to get his way.

Hecate’s plot hinges on steadily, insidiously manipulating Inspector Macbeth the head of SWAT and a man already susceptible to violent and paranoid tendencies.

What follows is a pause resisting story of love and guilt, political ambition, and greed for more, exploring the darkest corners of human nature and the aspirations of the criminal mind.

The Scottish play is here transplanted to a geographically agnostic place that mixes terms of Scottish and Scandinavian origin (the area is Fife, the sharpshooter named Olafson), along with allegorical touches: the capital city is known simply as the Capitol. But we spend most of our time in a grim northern town where industry has shut down and it nearly always rains. From one clue we deduce that the story is set in 1970. (It turns out to be helpful to avoid the characters having mobile phones.)

The police are at semi-permanent war with a biker gang known as the Norse Riders, who serve as couriers for the top bad guy. This is Hecate: rather than Shakespeare’s queen of the witches, he is the town’s untouchable drug lord, an old man also known as the “Invisible Hand”.

It’s not long, then, until the murders start, with Macbeth egged on by his paramour, here known simply as “Lady”: a flame-haired femme fatale who runs a casino. Her scheme for him to murder Duncan is the same as Lady Macbeth’s, stabbing him while he sleeps and blaming it on his bodyguards – arguably a terrible plan in the context of 20th-century forensics. But Macbeth gets away with it, and so wades deeper into the sea of blood that must finally engulf him.

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At times the novel strains credulity: no one notices the possible connection between the manner of Duncan’s murder and Macbeth’s fondness for daggers for quite a while, and when the newly promoted Macbeth gives a press conference explaining how his team have just shot dozens of people, the assembled journalists lap it up uncritically. The book’s style, in Don Bartlett’s translation from the Norwegian, is workmanlike, but from the combination of simple materials a thought can arise that seems authentically, blackly bardic: “For eternal loyalty is inhuman and betrayal is human.”

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