Bloody hell! Imagine Macbeth in bleakest 1970s Glasgow
Jo Nesbø’s antihero is a basic good bent cop who kills his boss, Duncan, to get his job as chief commissioner
As a general rule, at least in genre fiction, crime and the supernatural do not mix. Devotees of the latter may be content with their demons and wraiths, the voices from beyond the grave and what have you, but crime fans want their stories rooted in the real world; none of that mumbo jumbo about visions, witches and prophecies. Detection, after all, is a rational rather than irrational business.
Which is one of the major challenges that Nordic noir maestro Jo Nesbø faced when he set out to tackle Macbeth for the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which bestselling novelists turn the Bard’s plays into contemporary fiction. The other problem a thriller writer faces, of course, is that we all know who gets killed in Macbeth and who does the killing. Or at least we bloody well should.
Nesbø has reportedly claimed that he was quite comfortable in tackling Shakespeare’s darkest tale as it was essentially “a thriller about the struggle for power [that unfolds] in a gloomy, stormy crime noir-like setting and in a dark, paranoid mind”.Fast-forwarding the action from 11th century Scotland, Nesbø has set his Macbeth (Hogarth) in the 1970s in an unnamed city that could well be Glasgow. This gives the novel a gritty social edge suited to crime thrillers; Glasgow was a desperately grim place at the time, a city ravaged by gang warfare, alcoholism, rampant unemployment, corruption and an alarming rise in drug abuse.
The latter takes care of the “visions” in the story: the hallucinations come care of the novel’s “witches” — drug dealers whose “cauldron”, an underground laboratory, churns out “Brew”, the narcotic that has most of the city in its destructive grip. All the other ingredients are there, too: turf wars, corrupt civic leaders, widespread treachery.
And, of course, the hunger for power and promotion proves to be more addictive than Brew, which sets the scene for the tragedy of Nesbø’s Macbeth, a basic good bent cop who kills his boss, Duncan, to get his job as chief commissioner. His lover, Lady, was raped and pregnant at 13 and is now a retired prostitute running a casino.Some critics have not been kind. Tom Deveson, writing in the London Sunday Times, has complained that the story is “drearily” overstuffed.
“It doesn’t help,” he wrote, “that one of the most condensed plays in the canon is stretched here to a lumbering 512 pages, is punctuated by a series of unsatisfying mini-climaxes and is padded out with bribes and double-crosses, tip-offs and power-plays, counter conspiracies and car chases, too often overlaid with trite psychology.”
However, it is precisely this aspect that has delighted James Shapiro, who teaches Shakespeare at Columbia. He writes in the New York Times:
“In Macbeth, Shakespeare was unusually stingy when it came to sharing his characters’ back stories and motivations. Did Lady Macbeth have a child that died? Was the idea of killing Duncan planted in Macbeth’s mind by the witches or by Lady Macbeth, or had it been there, dormant, all along? Why does Macduff abandon his family? What Shakespeare withholds, Nesbø delves into deeply, taking one of Shakespeare’s shortest and most enigmatic plays and expanding on what brought his characters to this point in their lives.”
And so, minor characters are fleshed out considerably — although Macbeth and Lady, both vividly drawn by Nesbø, don’t have much of a history together, unlike the original, before the events of the novel unfold.The novel, Shapiro notes, is “inventive and deeply satisfying, especially to readers already familiar with the plot (and in America that means pretty much everyone who didn’t sleep through 10th-grade English)”.
He adds that, in delving into the moral choices confronting his characters, Nesbø has given us a “hopeful” Macbeth, one suited to our present era where “the slowness of democracy” is powerless when pitted against the greed of populists.
Other titles in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, available through Penguin Random House, include Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (a reboot of The Merchant of Venice), Edward St Aubyn’s Dunbar (King Lear), Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy (Othello), Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed (The Tempest), Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew) and Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale). Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn’s retelling of Hamlet is the next in the series, and is scheduled for publication in 2021.
MORE CLASSICS REBOOTING
The US author Madeline Miller struck gold in 2012 with The Song of Achilles, in which she retold the siege of Troy from the view point of Patroclus, whose death was avenged by Achilles with the city’s destruction. Homer didn’t make clear what their relationship was, so Miller made them lovers.
Her novel was a bestseller and was translated into 23 languages. Despite some sniffy criticism (the New York Times said it had “the head of a young adult novel, the body of The Iliad and the hindquarters of Barbara Cartland”), it went on to win the Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction).Miller has returned to The Iliad for her second novel, Circe (Bloomsbury), which has been praised by several critics as one of the must-read books of 2018. The Guardian has rather cleverly described this 350-page first-person account from a minor character in Homer’s writing (but an immortal nymph nonetheless) as being a sort “greatest hits” of Greek mythology:
“Prometheus and his endless punishment, Scylla and Charybdis, Hermes, Apollo, Athena, Daedalus and his son Icarus, Ariadne and the Minotaur (who is Circe’s nephew), Jason and the Golden Fleece – and Odysseus, of course, who in Book 10 of The Odyssey encounters Circe when he lands on her island and she changes some of his sailors into pigs.”
Speaking of the latter, Circe has been described as a #MeToo take of the above, a “feminist slant”, according to The Observer, “on The Odyssey. Miller makes these age-old texts thrum with contemporary relevance.”
CRASH COURSEWho are the alt-right? That is the central question explored by BBC journalist Mike Wendling, who has spent hours and hours trawling the darker corners of blogs and Internet forums to bring us his Alt-Right: From 4Chan to the White House (Pluto Press), a book that, according to the bumf, “is a vital guide to understanding the racist, misogynist, far-right movement that rose to prominence during Donald Trump’s election campaign”.More alarming, though, is Madeline Albright’s Fascism: A Warning (HarperCollins). Written with Bill Woodward, Albright, who served as the first ever woman US secretary of state from 1997 to 2001 under Bill Clinton, poses the question: “Why are we once again talking about fascism?”
Via an examination of case studies in Europe, the US and South America from World War 1 to the present day, Albright presents some worryingly familiar patterns. The first is that fascism thrives in conditions of political chaos and economic uncertainty. Weak, divided opposition to populists also provide opportunities for anti-democratic forces. Thirdly, there is the connivance of conservatives, Albright suggests, pointing to Italian and German conservatives who believed they could control fascism during the interwar years and use its popular support to achieve their own ends.
Albright’s lesson is that we must never take democracy for granted. She writes: “The temptation is powerful to close our eyes and wait for the worst to pass, but history tells us that for freedom to survive, it must be defended, and that if lies are to stop, they must be exposed.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
“The only variable here is Comey himself. It is [US President Donald] Trump’s bad luck to have fired an antagonist who, like him, is unhampered by bureaucratic restraints and humility. He does not see himself as merely an institutional representative. Comey is an avenger.” — Michael Wolff, author of the previous Trump tell-all, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House (Little, Brown), reviewing the latest Trump tell-all, former FBI director James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership (Macmillan), for the London Sunday Times...