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What’s done cannot be undone – ‘Macbeth’

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There are few things that I more eagerly anticipate as a reader than the imminent arrival of the latest installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series of books. These reimaginings of Shakespeare’s works by contemporary novelists have been among the most consistently innovative and engaging books of the past decade. My loves for both the Bard and for new fiction are sated simultaneously, thanks to Hogarth’s grand plan.

The latest offering – the seventh in the series – is “Macbeth” (Hogarth Shakespeare, $27), a take on the tragedy by Norwegian noir superstar Jo Nesbo and one more in a lengthy line of successes from the series.

(For the record, this marks the seventh in the series. The previous six are as follows: “A Winter’s Tale” (“The Gap of Time” by Jeanette Winterson), “The Merchant of Venice” (“My Name is Shylock” by Howard Jacobson), “The Taming of the Shrew” (“Vinegar Girl” by Anne Tyler), “The Tempest” (“Hag-Seed” by Margaret Atwood), “Othello” (“New Boy” by Tracy Chevalier) and “King Lear” (“Dunbar” by Edward St. Aubyn).)

He moves the palace intrigue from an 11th-century Scottish castle to a police department in a crumbling industrial city in the 1970s; he also moves the bubbling rage, ceaseless paranoia and intricate machinations to the more modern setting. Far from undermining the foundational narratives of power and anger, that modernity serves only to enhance them.

Macbeth works for the police department in a run-down, rainy industrial town. He’s considered to be one of the best on the force, even though he doesn’t necessarily have the class advantages of some of his compatriots. His friend and rival (more rival than friend, really) is Duff, a fellow officer who has most of Macbeth’s policing talent and exponentially more ambition.

New police chief Duncan is trying desperately to clean up both the town and the department; the previous administration had some noteworthy incidents of corruption that the force would like people to forget.

The primary criminal target for Macbeth, Duff and the rest of the force – Banquo, Angus, Malcolm and so on – is the drug trade. Two entities control much of the drug trade, bringing substances both familiar and brand-new to the streets. There’s drug lord Hecate and the biker gang known as the Norse Riders – they are the dual enemies that Macbeth seeks to defeat.

But when things start to change, beginning with an administrative shake-up, Macbeth – with the encouragement of his lover, the Inverness Casino owner known only as Lady – begins to develop an itch for advancement. Macbeth is steered into using his vast array of skills and general empathetic disconnect however necessary to achieve his goals – the ends justify the means.

Shakespeare has endured for centuries not least because there’s a universality to his themes that can translate across a broad spectrum of settings. Setting Shakespeare in alternate times and spaces happens so often as to have become almost a cliché. So it should come as no surprise that “Macbeth” transitions easily.

It’s actually pretty remarkable how well Nesbo’s hard-boiled, bleak crime thriller style fits the story told by “Macbeth.” There’s a spare muscularity to his prose that suits the undergirding alpha-maleness of these characters while also putting power madness and moral erosion on full display. He really captures the toxic masculinity that permeates the play and translates it beautifully, exploring the complexity of the assorted relationship dynamics along the way.

Grounding “Macbeth,” which has its share of supernatural moments, completely in reality could have been tricky, but Nesbo clears that hurdle with aplomb. Witches become drugmakers, ghosts become hallucinations … and it all works, staying true to the spirit of the story while still allowing it to exist in a real world.

Actually, Nesbo’s great across the board in that respect. He fiddles with a few aspects of the play, but only to allow a cleaner fit for his own choices and his own themes. Even then, his ideas exist in service to those of Shakespeare, rather than in opposition.

Jo Nesbo might not be the first name that springs to mind for a project such as this, but it turned out to be an exquisite marriage. “Macbeth” is the noir take on the Scottish play that you’ve always wanted … even if you didn’t know it yet.

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