Jo Nesbo has updated Macbeth to the 1970s
MACBETH – Jo Nesbø (Hogarth, £20)
It is no easy task taking on the greatest English writer of all time and turning one of his best-loved plays into a thriller for the modern reader. Yet this is what Jo Nesbø attempts with Macbeth and the result is an immensely enjoyable and gloriously dark novel.
Set in the 1970s the book sees Macbeth command the police SWAT team in a derelict and nameless Scottish town. Corruption rules supreme despite the best efforts of incumbent police chief Duncan and Macbeth is called upon to tackle drug lords and biker gangs against a backdrop of scheming and treachery. Civil unrest only ever seems a heartbeat away.
Macbeth’s no-nonsense approach wins the respect of his men and captures the eye of his superiors. Then a drugs raid at the port leads to a bloody gun battle and secures his promotion. His future appears assured.
But of course this is Macbeth and his “vaulting ambition” means he will never be happy with anything other than the top job. So when his partner Lady, a casino owner who has won his heart, whispers, “You have to kill Duncan”, the scene is set for a paroxysm of bloodletting.
Double Jo Nesbo
Nesbø is one of several writers to interpret Shakespeare classics for contemporary readers as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. He opted for Macbeth and it makes for an easy fit with his style of noir thrillers. But his Macbeth is no pale imitation of the original and nor does he treat the task as a novelty or a literary trick. Rather he takes the story – a morality play, a tragedy, a cautionary tale of overreaching oneself – and places it firmly in a framework that any modern reader can relate to.
The names of most central characters (Macbeth, Lady, Duff, Duncan, Banquo, Lennox) come straight from Stratford-upon-Avon. The plot also follows the same path. Without spoiling the story for those unfamiliar with the play, the murderers and their victims are true to the original. If anything Nesbø ups the body count.
Yet his Macbeth also deals with more modern tragedies: police corruption, drug addiction and pollution. It paints a stark picture of crime, unemployment and despair in the UK’s abandoned cities.
Perhaps at times he tries too hard to keep to the script. The three witches appear but as helpers to a demonic drugs lord. Nesbø alludes to the prophecy that Macbeth “shall never be vanquished” until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane but it feels a little forced.
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the 2015 film adaptation of Macbeth
Yet these are minor niggles in what is a tremendously satisfying read. Nesbø’s Macbeth stands comfortably as a thriller in its own right and would deservedly grace the bestsellers list with or without the Shakespeare connection. He has accomplished that toughest of literary feats: putting his own unmistakable mark on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated plays.
Yes it is bleak, relentless and steeped in blood. It feels hopeless at times. But it is Macbeth and we would feel cheated by anything less.
Karen Hamilton used to be an air hostess
THE PERFECT GIRLFRIEND by Karen Hamilton Wildfire, £12.99
MEET Juliette, a woman so obsessive in her pursuit of the man who dumped her that she makes Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction seem sane, approachable and easygoing.
Juliette’s ex-boyfriend Nate is an airline pilot and such is her commitment to winning him back that she trains as an air stewardess to ensure their paths cross again. She closely monitors his work rota and routinely lets herself into his flat when she knows he is away, snooping around and sleeping over when Nate’s schedule allows it. She also uses a spy app to monitor his text messages. It quickly becomes apparent that she will stop at nothing to win him back or, as she puts it: “I’m in it for the long haul.”
So when Nate acquires a new girlfriend the stakes are disturbingly high. How far will Juliette go to win back her man? Spectacularly far, it turns out.
Hamilton is a former flight attendant and The Perfect Girlfriend gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into the life of an air stewardess. Her debut novel is written with a gleeful zeal that leaps off the page and its momentum comes from the reader watching and waiting to see how far Juliette will go in her ruthless, obsessive pursuit of Nate. You will be nail-bitingly terrified for him long before you meet him.
Juliette is an unforgettably monstrous character: cold, calculating and entirely lacking in empathy. Her appalling scheming made me gasp aloud as I read, although her unhinged behaviour stems from a bleak back story that feels a little at odds with this larger-than-life romp of a novel. And as the plot unspools there are times when you have to suspend disbelief.
But Juliette is such a memorable, grippingly unpredictable character that you’ll be happy to go along for the turbulent ride.
If you like your crime fiction dark this is for you
THE SMILING MAN by Joseph Knox Doubleday, £12.99
If you like your crime fiction dark, gritty and contemporary, then Joseph Knox’s latest novel is for you. In Knox’s debut novel Sirens, a Waterstones Thriller Of The Month, Manchester detective Aidan Waits embarked upon an undercover investigation into a drugs gang but it rapidly spiralled out of control. So as The Smiling Man opens, Waits is in disgrace, covering the night shift with politically incorrect DI Peter Sutcliffe (the book is dripping with dark humour) and the pair become involved in a bizarre case when an unidentifiable smiling corpse is found in an abandoned city centre hotel.
Times are tough in Manchester. Prostitutes are using the hotel, there is a huge problem with the drug “spice” and rumours abound of a serial killer on the loose in the city.
At the same time an alt-right journalist is trying to blackmail a young woman with a sex video. There is also a parallel flashback storyline involving a young boy called Wally who is used as a decoy by Bateman, an unspeakably violent sadist in a relationship with his mother.
The book opens with Wally witnessing the horrific murder of an elderly couple by Bateman. Knox’s novel is hugely detailed and involving, written with style and drawing together multilayered plotlines to a satisfying conclusion. Among a colourful and believable cast of supporting characters, it is the flawed, very human Aidan Waits who forms the solid centre of the novel.
His colleagues may not like or trust him yet the reader is very much on the side of a man whose childhood in foster care means he is emotionally distant but drawn to help the vulnerable people he encounters.
I would recommend reading Sirens first for a clear understanding of DC Waits and his background. But careful reading of The Smiling Man will also take new readers on a dark and engrossing ride through the mean streets of Manchester.
A promising debut from a clearly talented writer
ONLY CHILD by Rhiannon Navin Mantle, £12.99
It would be hard to find a more timely release than this compelling novel from Rhiannon Navin. It deals with the aftermath of a school shooting in America, seen through the eyes of six-year-old Zach. The book opens as he cowers in a cupboard with his teacher and the rest of his kindergarten class listening to the “pop pop pop” of gunfire.
After an agonising wait the children are rescued and reunited with their parents.
But when Zach’s mother arrives her relief at finding her young son unharmed is short-lived when she realises that her older boy is missing.
In its examination of how both a family and a community struggle to cope with such a traumatic event, Only Child feels eerily prescient in the wake of the most recent school shooting in Florida.
It is impossible not to be moved by Zach’s heartbreaking narration as he tries to navigate his new life where the adults he has always relied on start acting in ways he cannot understand.
Moving and extremely thought-provoking, this is a very promising debut from a clearly talented writer.