In keeping with the mission of founders Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917 to give voice to the best new writing of their age, Hogarth Press recently embarked on a new project. Since 2012, six novels by contemporary authors have recreated William Shakespeare’s classic plays under the Hogarth imprint.
Margaret Atwood, for example, has retooled “The Tempest.” Gillian Flynn has retold “Hamlet,” Edward St. Aubyn, “King Lear.” A couple of years ago, Anne Tyler reinvented “The Taming of the Shrew” into her brilliantly idiosyncratic “Vinegar Girl.”
The newest in the series has just appeared. The result is a match that truly demonstrates the efficacy of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. From Jo Nesbø — “The Snowman” and 10 other Nordic thrillers featuring detective Harry Hole — comes a shattering reiteration of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”
Nesbø’s “Macbeth” is, in its own modern retelling, as much about ambition and power as is Shakespeare’s tragic masterwork.
Why are “Macbeth” and Nesbø (in a colloquial, vigorous English translation by Don Bartlett) such a good fit? In Nesbø’s Harry Hole books, guilt is not as black-and-white as the younger Harry thought it was when he decided to become a policeman and redeem people from evil.
“As a rule,” Nesbø reminds us in another of his books, “there’s little evil but a lot of human frailty. Many sad stories you can recognize in yourself. However, as you say, one has to live. So we start lying. To those around us and to ourselves.”
Words of understanding, seemingly, for Harry Hole, detective in search of a moral compass for the world around him, a world that doesn’t sit quite at the moral attention Harry does.
Words of understanding, to be sure, for Nesbø’s Inspector Macbeth, head of a SWAT unit that is trying to keep a run-down, rain-soaked, industrial town free of two drug lords battling for control of the trade and the town during the 1970s.
Readers will remain strangely sympathetic toward the progressively sinister and Machiavellian Macbeth — who has his eye on becoming chief commissioner of police, the post currently held by the upright Duncan — as well as remain equally sympathetic toward the inspector’s striking, red-haired companion Lady and the upscale, if not-so-upright, gambling business and casino she owns.
Such is Nesbø’s universe.
And, yes, her name is “Lady.” The success of “Macbeth” in great part hinges on such wry Nesbø humor. That humor is a sort of Shakespearean tempering of the horrors that abound.
It is the same humor that gives us the three weird sisters — who open and keep passing through the Bard’s play — as the only individuals trusted by scheming drug lord Hecate to deliver messages — and prime street drugs — to city officials. By the way, the name of the drug the “sisters” deliver — even expertly cut — for Hecate is termed “brew.”
Other characters are equally and typically idiosyncratic Nesbø creations. Inspector Cawdor is discovered to be Hecate’s mole in the police department. Banquo is a father figure to Macbeth, if his professional subordinate. Banquo’s teenaged son and police cadet Fleance embraces Macbeth as an uncle. To celebrate Macbeth’s recent promotion, Duncan, the idealistic police chief, agrees to an overnight celebration at Lady’s casino. And there is Duff, head of the Narcotics Unit, holding onto a secret about Macbeth from the time they became childhood comrades in a horrific orphanage.
“Macbeth” is a white-knuckle wild ride of ghosts and witches, murders and revenge, occasional sleepwalking and incessant hand washing. Yet the disquiet of such moments is often assuaged by poetry worthy of Shakespeare.
Listen to Nesbø’s Macbeth contemplate life and death: “We’re interrupted in mid-sentence in the narrative about ourselves, and the end hangs in the air, with no meaning, no conclusion, no unraveling final act. A short echo of the last, semi articulated word and you’re forgotten.”
“Macbeth” seems, like the Harry Hole series, to be ferociously complex, unrestrained and altogether ruthless. Yet at its heart is Jo Nesbø at his rewarding, unaffectedly principled best.
Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.