In his new novel, Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø transforms the protagonist of Shakespeare’s Macbeth from a Scottish thane to the head of the SWAT unit in a 1970s industrial town torn apart by the drug trade.
This gritty retelling of Shakespeare’s play for the Hogarth Shakespeare series was published April 10.
Readers familiar with the source material will recognize many of Nesbø’s character names: Duncan is the chief of police, Malcolm is deputy chief, and Duff is leader of the narcotics unit.
Hecate is a powerful drug lord who sends three sisters to Inspector Macbeth to convey a prophecy that he will become head of the Organized Crime Unit and then Chief Commissioner.
In the excerpt below, Lady (Macbeth’s love interest and owner of the Inverness Casino) plots Macbeth’s path to the top post.
“What?” He blinked in the dark bedroom.
She repeated the words: “You have to kill Duncan.”
Lady heard the sound of her own words, felt them grow in her mouth and drown her beating heart.
Macbeth sat up in bed, looking at her carefully. “Are you awake or talking in your sleep, darling?”
“No. I’m here. And you know it has to be done.”
“You were having a bad dream. And now—”
“No! Think about it. It’s logical. It’s him or us.”
“Do you think he wishes us any harm? He’s only just promoted me.”
“In name you may be the head of Organized Crime, but in practice you’re at the mercy of his whims. If you want to close the Obelisk, if you want to chase the drug dealers out of the area around the Inverness and increase police presence on the streets so that people feel safe, you have to be chief commissioner. And that’s just the small things. Think of all the big things we could achieve with you in the top job, darling.”
Macbeth laughed. “But Duncan wants to do big things.”
“I don’t doubt that he honestly and genuinely wants to, but to achieve big things a chief commissioner must have broad support from the people. And for this town’s inhabitants Duncan is just a snob who landed the top post, as Kenneth did too, as Tourtell did in the town hall. It isn’t beautiful words that win over the populace, it’s who you are. And you and I are part of them, Macbeth. We know what they know. We want what they want. Listen. Of the people. For the people. With the people. Do you understand? We are the only ones who can say that.”
“I understand, but . . .”
“But what?” She stroked his stomach. “Don’t you want to be in charge? Aren’t you a man who wants to be at the top? Are you happy to lick the boots of others?”
“Of course not. But if we just wait we’ll get there anyway. As head of Organized Crime I’m still number three.”
“But the chief commissioner’s office is not for the likes of you, my love! Think about it. You’ve been given this job so that it looks as if we’re as good as them. They’ll never give you the top job. Not willingly. We have to take it.”
He rolled over onto his other side, with his back to her. “Let’s forget this, darling. The way you’ve forgotten that Malcolm will be chief if anything happens to Duncan.”
She grabbed his shoulder, pulled him back over so that he lay facing her again.
“I haven’t forgotten anything. I haven’t forgotten that Hecate said you’ll be the chief commissioner, and that means he has a plan. We take care of Duncan and he’ll take care of Malcolm. And I haven’t forgotten the evening you took care of Ernest Collum. Duncan is Collum, my sweet. He’s holding a pistol to the head of our dream. And you have to find the courage you displayed that evening. You have to be the man you were that night, Macbeth. For me. For us.” She placed a hand on his cheek and softened her voice. “Life doesn’t give the likes of us that many opportunities, darling. We have to grasp the few that offer themselves.”
He lay there. Silent. She waited. Listened, but no words drowned out the beating of her heart now. He had ambition, dreams and the will, she knew that, they were what had raised him from the mess he had found himself in—they had turned a youth addicted to drugs into a police cadet and later the head of SWAT. That was the affinity they had: they had both made good, paid the price. Should he stop now, halfway there, before they could enjoy the rewards? Before they could enjoy the respect and admire the view? He was courageous and a ruthless man of action, but he had failings that could prove costly. A lack of evil. The evil that you needed, if only for one decisive second. The second when you have to cope with not having restrictive morality on your side, when you mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture, mustn’t torment yourself by asking if you’re doing the right thing in this, the smaller one. Macbeth loved what he called justice, and his loyalty to the rules of others was a weakness she could love him for. In times of peace. And despise him for now, when the bells of war were ringing. She ran her hand from his cheek to his neck, slowly over his chest and stomach. And back up. Listened. His breathing was regular, calm. He was asleep.
Excerpted from Macbeth by Jo Nesbø. Copyright © 2018 by Jo Nesbø. English translation copyright © 2018 by Don Bartlett. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Hogarth, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.