Saturday 21 April 2018

Retelling full of sound and fury fails to impress

Fiction: Macbeth, Jo Nesbo, Hogarth Shakespeare, hardback, 503 pages, €18.99

Two dimensional: Jo Nesbo's reworking does not work as a straight-up 'crime story'
Two dimensional: Jo Nesbo's reworking does not work as a straight-up 'crime story'
Macbeth by Jo Nesbo
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The latest instalment in the fine Hogarth Shakespeare series - in which the Bard is retold by modern authors, in alternate settings - takes a swerve from the previous five. After literary writers such as Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, we have Norwegian crime-fiction megastar Jo Nesbo with an unusual take on 'the Scottish play'.

The eponymous anti-hero is now a cop in a reimagined 1970s Inverness. This city is an awful place, blighted by organised crime, political corruption, pollution, unemployment and - this being Scotland - frequent rainfall.

There's little here except illegal drug-dealing and prostitution, or legal gambling which is sleazy and not much better. There's an air of deep, almost animal desperation; incipient violence fizzes in the air, omnipresent, like the crackle of electricity heralding a storm.

Macbeth is one of the few hopes left. Leader of the SWAT team, he's brave, tough, charismatic. More importantly, he's an honest cop. Alongside his old pal from the orphanage, Duff, working under the equally upright Commissioner Duncan, they're ambitious about ending the gangland reigns of rival drug-dealers, Sweno and Hecate.

However, Lady - Macbeth's casino-owning lover with a shady past - is equally ambitious, and rather less scrupulous. She persuades him that killing Duncan, and taking control of the police himself, will ultimately be better for Inverness. Duncan is well-meaning, but posh and hesitant; Macbeth, a man of the streets, has the leadership and working-class credentials to take the people with him.

Recounting anymore of the plot, one of the most famous in English literature, seems somewhat redundant. But how well does it work as an adaptation?

I studied Macbeth for my degree and am ashamed to say I remember very little, but as far I can recall, Nesbo sticks pretty much to the original narrative. The setting is fine, too: the 1970s feels (in the memory, at least) like a suitably grim era for exploring themes of power, revenge and tragedy.

Besides, we're well used to fresh, sometimes bizarre reiterations of the Bard. We've seen the Reduced Shakespeare Company, plays done with all-female casts (including this one), Richard III as a metaphor for 1930s Fascism, Romeo and Juliet professing undying love in 1990s California or the 1960s Upper West Side, not to mention a thousand variations on Hamlet.

The main problem with Macbeth is that it's poorly written. I accept that Nesbo isn't John Banville - that's not necessarily an insult - and don't expect his books to be wonderfully elegant and poetic. (Though, it must be added, some crime novels manage both a riveting story and real finesse in telling it.)

As well as the problematic prose, Macbeth doesn't really work in straight-up "crime story" terms. The main man is a clichéd "tortured cop who's learned some tough life-lessons": he's a recovered drug user and lethal knife-thrower who literally wanted to join the circus as a kid. Duff and Caithness are better-realised, but most of the other characters are equally two-dimensional, especially Hecate: menacing supervillain is intended, bathetic comedy-figure is achieved.

Macbeth's willingness to go along with Lady's plan so quickly - to murder an innocent man and, in short order, several others - is simply not believable. Then, his virtually-instantaneous disintegration into madness and tyranny is, Hecate-like, comically ridiculous rather than compelling or thought-provoking.

And, as usual with crime novels, the book is far too long. There's loads of incident and action, for sure, but little enough real thrills or suspense. It just goes on and on, rumbling away like a dull headache.

None of this matters a whit to Jo Nesbo or his billions of fans: Macbeth will sell like (pardon the pun) gangbusters. But it's a tough slog to get through and I couldn't, in all honesty, recommend it. There are a million better crime novels out there: I'd say read one of those instead.

By comparison to the classics of the genre, this book is - to quote a certain W Shakespeare and his play set in Scotland - but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. A tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Darragh McManus' novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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