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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jo Nesbø

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To purchase Macbeth

Title: Macbeth
Author: Jo Nesbø
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 446 pages
Original in: Norwegian
Availability: Macbeth - US
Macbeth - UK
Macbeth - Canada
Macbeth - France
Macbeth - Deutschland
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  • Norwegian title: Macbeth
  • Translated by Don Bartlett
  • A volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare series

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Our Assessment:

B+ : neat, clever, and enjoyable re-telling of the story in a near-contemporary setting

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Evening Standard . 29/3/2018 Mark Sanderson
Financial Times . 30/3/2018 Randy Boyagoda
The Guardian . 12/4/2018 Steven Poole
The Independent B- 4/4/2018 Lucy Scholes
Irish Times . 7/4/2018 Declan Burke
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/4/2018 James Shapiro
The Observer B- 1/4/2018 Alexander Larman
The Spectator B+ 14/4/2018 Andrew Taylor
Sunday Times . 1/4/2018 Tom Deveson
Wall St. Journal . 4/4/2018 Tobias Grey
The Washington Post . 6/4/2018 Dennis Drabelle

  From the Reviews:
  • "If Nesbø's Macbeth is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, it is still, for the most part, a gripping tale of vaulting ambition and proof that “blood will have blood”. (...) The stage, when the hurly-burly's done, is strewn with corpses and yet you remain unmoved. What's missing is tragedy." - Mark Sanderson, Evening Standard

  • "Shakespeare lovers will probably find Nesbo's book clever and entertaining in its many intensely plotted sequences and in its offerings of high-toned tough guy talk (...). Despite many engaging moments, however, the book is too long and loose. Nesbo indulges in momentum-breaking back stories for his characters and devotes too much time and space to their speculations about each other's motives." - Randy Boyagoda, Financial Times

  • "At times the novel strains credulity (...) The book's style, in Don Bartlett's translation from the Norwegian, is workmanlike, but from the combination of simple materials a thought can arise that seems authentically, blackly bardic: "For eternal loyalty is inhuman and betrayal is human." This is in the end a deliciously oppressive page-turner that, like The Tragedy of Macbeth itself, seems to harbour something ineradicably evil at its core." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "Of all the pairings in the Hogarth Shakespeare retold series, matching the king of Scandi noir with this most violent and dark of the Bard's works seemed in theory one of the most promising. In the book's defence, Nesbo makes excellent use of all the atmosphere of his genre, and the stakes at play are every bit as convincing as those in the original. Overall though, it disappoints. (...) Nesbo -- ably translated here by Don Bartlett -- swings awkwardly between language that attempts rarification (...) This is Nesbo doing what he's good at, but it's no great addition to Hogarth's list." - Lucy Scholes, The Independent

  • "A bracing blend of spaghetti Western, dystopian sci-fi and Elizabethan tragedy, Nesbø's Macbeth is for the most part a plausibly imaginative reworking of Shakespeare's text (.....) There's no doubting the seriousness of Nesbø's intent in crafting this variation on Shakespeare’s original plot, but while this is certainly an imaginative and powerful adaptation, and one that will likely please fans of the Harry Hole novels, it lacks the nihilistic dark thrill of Shakespeare's original, that of defying God." - Declan Burke, Irish Times

  • "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. (...) It's tougher than it looks to create a world that is faithful to Shakespeare's original while also feeling modern and real. (...) While there are echoes here and there of Shakespeare's language (which Don Bartlett, who translated the novel from the Norwegian, has handled well), Nesbo is less interested in the original's verbal texture than he is in adapting its plot and delving into the moral choices confronting its characters. In the end, he offers a dark but ultimately hopeful Macbeth, one suited to our own troubled times" - James Shapiro, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(I)t neither offers a contemporary response to its source nor entirely succeeds as a beat-for-beat update. (...) Nesbø's prose, as efficiently translated by Don Bartlett, alternates between the matter-of-fact and uneasy attempts at Shakespearean grandeur and poetry (.....) When Nesbø has the courage to move away from his source, the narrative and characters feel liberated. (...) Ultimately, this will appeal to Nesbø's substantial and loyal readership and admirers of the Hogarth series who want to see how this notoriously tricky play has been tackled." - Alexander Larman, The Observer

  • "Nesbo is best known for his ferociously successful ‘Harry Hole’ series. His version of Macbeth has many of the same qualities -- strong, unsubtle characters, a driving narrative packed with set-piece action sequences and a surreal, cartoonish quality that often has more to do with Gotham City than Glasgow. Whatever the novel may lack in psychological subtlety, it more than makes up in shoot-outs. (...) Nesbo has produced a sprawling, often confusing thriller which may not have a great deal to do with Shakespeare's play but at least bursts with a rude imaginative vigour of its own. A for effort, then, and indeed for prolixity." - Andrew Taylor, The Spectator

  • "To help the Scottish play's heaping doses of mayhem go down, the author makes some crafty choices. (...) On the whole, though, Nesbo manages the balancing act of being true to the original play without slighting his own interests as a writer: bleak settings, loyalty (or the lack thereof) among crooks, clever escapes from tight spots, the affinities between policemen and the criminals they chase." - Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jo Nesbø's Macbeth is a volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare-series, which: "sees Shakespeare's works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today"; it's the only volume to date which shares its title with that of the original it is based on.
       Nesbø's re-imagines Shakespeare's play in a grimy (not specified as such but pretty obviously) Scottish city in the early 1970s, complete with high unemployment, rampant drug use, and a city administration and police force riddled with corruption. With the death of Chief Commissioner Kenneth, who had consolidated and wielded power absolutely there seems to be the possibility of a new dawn, with an outsider brought in to clean things up (and there's a lot to clean up).
       The newcomer is Duncan, the son of a bishop, and the head of Organized Crime in Capitol, the much finer (and safer) country-capital:

It had been a surprising appointment because Duncan didn't come from the old school of politically pragmatic officers, but from the new generation of well educated police administrators who supported reforms, transparency, modernization and the fight against corruption -- which the majority of the town's elected get-rich-quick politicians did not.
       The two (overtly) criminal banes of the town are the Norse Riders, a drug-dealing motorcycle gang led by Sweno, and the much more polished -- and far-better entrenched -- Hecate. Duncan makes destroying Hecate his highest priority.
       When selecting who he wants to head his own Organized Crime Unit, Duncan more or less chooses between Duff -- the obvious choice -- and Macbeth, the current head of SWAT. Duff and Macbeth both were together in an orphanage and then at police college, where they were close friends, but they have since drifted apart, Duff's upper-class roots coming to the fore and slowly distancing him from commoner Macbeth. Duff is now married, with children, and lives comfortably in a fine neighborhood; he's also carrying on an affair. Macbeth meanwhile has been involved for four year with the woman known simply as Lady, who came up from awful circumstances and now runs one of the town's casinos -- the fancier one, the Inverness. The two are completely devoted to one another, sharing even their darkest secrets (of which there are several, including Macbeth's years as a drug addict, though he's cleaned up his act in the meantime).
       Duff's over-hasty actions to take out Sweno -- whom he really wants to get -- and the Norse Riders don't go quite as hoped, with Macbeth riding to at least the partial rescue. This, in turn, nudges Duncan to choose Macbeth over Duff for the Organized Crime post. Macbeth and Lady, with the seeds of all the possibilities now before them laid out tantalizingly by Hecate, then suddenly see -- and seize -- the opportunity for a quick rise to true power, by simply opening up the next rungs above, so that Macbeth can climb up the next steps. First off: "You have to kill Duncan", Lady tells him.
       Nesbø's novel quite closely follows the outlines of the Shakespeare play -- so, in fact, readers know much of what's coming: who will die, and when. Macbeth and Lady's plans -- or Hecate's, if you wish -- lead to a snowballing of people who have to be gotten out of the way; along the way there is also considerable collateral damage. A nice touch is all the double-dealing and the questions of who is loyal to whom and who can be trusted -- with Hecate an impressively powerful but shadowy puppet-master, with quite a few tricks (and people) up his sleeve.
       Macbeth means to do good with the power he accumulates -- but the means to those means are more than problematic. As is eventually noted, rather than cleaning the town up and making it safer: "This is beginning to resemble how it was under Kenneth".
       Macbeth falls back on drugs for a while -- he's not the only one -- including a new one that Hecate is circulating, called 'Power', but he quickly finds a substitute that fills him with a similar drive and edge. As Hecate explains:
     "I fear he's hooked. Not so strange; maybe, after all, it's the world's most addictive dope."
     "Power ?"
     "Yes, but not the type that comes in powder form. Real power. I didn't think that he would be hooked quite so quickly. He's already managed to divest himself of any emotions that tie him to morality and humanity; now power is his new and only lover. You heard the radio interview the other day. The brat wants to become mayor."
       Nesbø transposes the events and action from Shakespeare's play quite well and cleverly. Some of this is hard to do, but Nesbø comes up with some quite ingenious variations. And when all else fails he can bring in the Gatling guns ..... If the occasional famous scene feels a bit awkwardly tied in -- Macbeth haunted by Banquo's ghost, for one --, much is presented quite naturally, to the extent that this Macbeth would pass as a mostly plausible (if at times rather over-plotted) near-contemporary thriller even if there had never been Shakespeare's original.
       Nesbø does struggle some with language, with the grandiose/would-be-Shakespearean occasionally coming to the fore -- all the more jarringly alongside everyday speech; it's a balance he never quite figures out. That said, Macbeth still reads very well: Nesbø remains a cut above your average mystery/thriller writer, his descriptions and dialogue well-hewn. The story is a bit messy -- but that's also because he remains so faithful to Shakespeare's original, plot-wise -- but this is a book that, as much as any, can be described as 'propulsively readable'.
       In a way this is an odd exercise, the Macbeth-story (play) so closely re-constructed in a different time, but then for Nesbø the plot's the thing, and it is fun to watch just how he adapts it to his modern setting and circumstances. As a consequence, however, much of the Shakespearean power of the original is lost, and while Nesbø does take a few stabs at padding out character-backstory, he surprisingly doesn't take advantage of all the room a novel would allow for to really make more of most of the characters (though admittedly the sheer number of significant ones would complicate this). What's left is a solid thriller, with a bit of a different feel from most you find nowadays. It adds nothing to our appreciation (or understanding) of Shakespeare or his story, but it's a good, fun, and surprisingly exciting (given that readers are likely to know, step by step, at least roughly what's going to happen) read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 June 2020

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Macbeth: Reviews: Jo Nesbø: Other books by Jo Nesbø under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Norwegian author Jo Nesbø was born in 1960.

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© 2020-2023 the complete review

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