By Jo Nesbo
Translated by Don Bartlett
446 pp. Hogarth. $27.
In 1937, The New Yorker published James Thurber’s “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” about an avid reader of Agatha Christie who picks up a paperback copy of “Macbeth,” mistakenly assuming it’s a detective story. She soon discovers it’s a Shakespeare play but is already hooked and reads it as a whodunit. It takes her a while to identify who killed Duncan, after initially refusing to believe the Macbeths were responsible: “You suspect them the most, of course, but those are the ones that are never guilty — or shouldn’t be, anyway.” Her prime suspect had been Banquo, but “then, of course, he was the second person killed. That was good right in there, that part. The person you suspect of the first murder should always be the second victim.”
It’s a very funny story and an insightful one, for Thurber shows how closely Shakespeare’s tragedy follows the contours of detective fiction. Thurber wasn’t the first to draw such connections; over a century earlier, in a brilliant essay about the play — “On the Knocking at the Gate in ‘Macbeth’” — Thomas De Quincey had reflected on how deeply Shakespeare understood the interplay of murder and suspense. If the many allusions to “Macbeth” in the works of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James and other crime writers are any indication, Shakespeare’s play may be seen as one of the great progenitors of the genre, making Jo Nesbo, the celebrated Norwegian writer of thrillers, an ideal choice to update the play for Hogarth Shakespeare, a series in which best-selling novelists turn Shakespeare’s works into contemporary fiction.
Nesbo has spoken of finding himself on familiar terrain here, arguing that “Macbeth” is essentially a “thriller about the struggle for power” that takes place “in a gloomy, stormy crime noir-like setting and in a dark, paranoid human mind.” True enough, yet many features of this 400-year-old tragedy don’t easily fit the demands of a modern, realistic thriller. One of the pleasures of reading this book is watching Nesbo meet the formidable challenge of assimilating elements of the play unsuited to realistic crime fiction, especially the supernatural: the witches, prophecies, visions, and the mysterious figure of Hecate.
Nesbo’s most consequential decision was when and where to set his story. While he follows Shakespeare in locating it in Scotland, rather than taking us back to the 11th century he places it in the early 1970s. He doesn’t name the city, though there are many hints that it’s Glasgow. This choice signals Nesbo’s ambitions for his novel, giving it a sharp social edge as well as a timely political resonance. The Glasgow of that era was a desperately grim place, not unlike those parts of America now ravaged by the opioid crisis: It was staggered by alcoholism, environmental hazards, high suicide rates, corruption, gang warfare, the loss of industrial jobs and a significant rise in drug abuse. Things were so bad that historians speak of the “Glasgow effect” to account for why Glaswegians died younger and suffered more than those who lived in comparable places.
It’s tougher than it looks to create a world that is faithful to Shakespeare’s original while also feeling modern and real. Placing Shakespeare’s story in a late-20th-century world of drugs, gangs and corrupt civic leaders goes a long way toward solving this problem. “Brew” — the term used for the drug to which so many are addicted — is at the heart of Nesbo’s novel and neatly straddles the murky world of Shakespeare’s witches, with their caldron, and that of modern drug labs. By making addiction so central to his plot, Nesbo also makes Macbeth’s paranoia and hallucinatory visions, so crucial to Shakespeare’s play, not just believable but meaningful in a contemporary way.