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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo's Macbeth was the second novel I read of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. This book was quite a bit heftier than Vinegar Girl; Nesbo turns the tragedy into a crime noir story, and sets it in an unnamed town (probably Glasgow) in the early 1970s amongst police officers and drug dealers at war for control of the city.  Drugs -- specifically, two formulas with the street names "brew" and "power" made by three female chemists -- account for the supernatural elements of the play, and gangs replace the Norwegian and Irish invaders.

The advantage of turning Shakespeare's plays into novels is the opportunity to flesh out the characters' backgrounds, motives, and so on, an advantage Nesbo fully uses. Lady's obsession with blood and babies is a consequence of her harrowing past. Less effectively, Banquo is loyal to Macbeth despite his misgivings because he was a surrogate father to him. But the bulk of the narrative is devoted to Macbeth's and Duff's relationship; their shared past in an orphanage and later the police force explains both their friendship and their eventual determination to destroy each other.

Crime noir is not my favorite kind of fiction, but what kept me reading (in addition, of course, to Shakespeare's storytelling) was Nesbo's way of humanizing the characters. When the novel opens, pretty much every one of them had done questionable, or even downright evil, things, yet Nesbo gives each one chance after chance to be brave and do the right thing. Some don't, some do, some do after a lot of waffling, so the tragedy plays out as expected. But by showing the role choices -- both active and passive -- have in what happens, Nesbo manages to achieve a kind of hopefulness in the narrative despite the bloody end. People do terrible things, but they can choose to do good the next day. Redemption is always available, if one is willing to accept it.

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