When best-selling crime writer Jo Nesbo was offered the chance to reimagine one of Shakespeare’s plays, he would only do it for Macbeth,
which he sets in an imaginary contemporary Scottish city awash with drugs, crime and corrupt cops. Interview by Janet Christie
A fearless hero is given a prediction of greatness by a trio of ‘witches’ and takes it to heart. Consumed by murderous ambition and spurred on by his lady, he is corrupted, then mired in guilt, becomes master of his own downfall. You know how it goes… Macbeth, a play so dark that those of a superstitious bent – and we’re not just talking thespians – believe it cursed and insist on referring to it as ‘The Scottish Play’.
So who better to take on Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy, shake it up and give it a contemporary treatment, than crime writer Jo Nesbo? One of the world’s best-selling proponents of Nordic noir, the Norwegian has a reputation for serving up plotlines so grisly with his Harry Hole detective series that his multitude of international fans have perfected the art of reading at arm’s length. And now it’s time for them to screw their courage to the sticking-place with the Nesbo version of Macbeth as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. Aiming to reinterpret The Bard for a modern audience, it sees Nesbo retelling his works alongside the likes of Margaret Atwood interpreting The Tempest and Howard Jacobson revisiting The Merchant of Venice.
“When it was suggested to me, my first reaction was thanks, but no thanks,” says Nesbo. “Usually when it’s not my own ideas I say no. Then I realised it was my chance to revisit Macbeth. I said if I can have Macbeth, I will do it.”
Now 58, Nesbo has been a writer, footballer, musician, economist, puppet, pauper, pirate, poet, pawn and a king. Actually only the first four of those job titles, but you get the idea. The man is a versatile polymath, seemingly hard-wired for success. After a promising soccer career at Norway’s premier league team Molde fell foul of injury, he did his national service then went to business school. While there he formed a band Di derre (Them There) and on graduation combined a career as a financial analyst with that of musician. Commissioned to write a book about the band’s life on the road, he turned to crime instead and came up with his first noir novel, The Bat, featuring Oslo Crime Squad detective Harry Hole.
Nesbo has now written 11 thrillers in the series, selling 40 million books in 50 languages and made a killing. Two of the books have been adapted for the big screen: The Snowman, starring Michael Fassbender last year and Headhunters in 2011. There are also his children’s books, a series focused on crazy professor Doktor Proktor that he started writing for his now 18-year-old daughter, and more crime in the The Olav Johansen series, also due to hit the big screen shortly with a Tobey Maguire version of Blood on Snow.
Nesbo’s insistence on revisiting Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy is no surprise, as the play shares the crime writer’s obsessions, in particular those explored in his Harry Hole books. There’s a main character with a moral code in conflict with his overweening ambition, a protagonist who is strong yet weak and could go either way, then there’s the gloomy setting, the grisly murders and paranoia, the general hurlyburly and a whole lot of double toil and trouble.
“I didn’t have a close relationship with Shakespeare,” says Nesbo. “In Norway our Shakespeare is Ibsen and we hear about Shakespeare, but don’t read him. But I did have a relationship with Macbeth because I saw the Roman Polanski movie when I was young and I knew the story.”
Nesbo also knew Othello and The Tempest, the latter with its magical world of monsters and spirits he not altogether surprisingly dismisses as “foolish”. Murder and revenge are much more up his alley.
Rather than try to rewrite Shakespeare, Nesbo decided early on that there would be none of the original prose in the novel. Instead he took the bones of the story, the plot and atmosphere, and wrote his own tale of ambition, bloodbaths and treachery set in an imaginary contemporary Scottish city awash with drugs, crime and corrupt cops.
“Nobody needs a book where the writer is trying his best to be William Shakespeare, so I decided this would be my take on the story,” he says. “I had to start stripping off all the beautiful prose and poetry of Shakespeare and get at the construction and the characters’ motivation. You can play around with certain things, but there are things that are needed because that’s why the story works. There’s a reason why this is a classic, why we have always been fascinated with Macbeth.”
As ever, Nesbo is drawn to the flaws or imperfections in the original, the things that don’t quite add up and make it all the more intriguing.
“It’s not a perfect story; here and there it’s awkward,” he says, “but that’s part of why it’s so fascinating. It’s like a melody that has that extra beat that makes it wrong in a way, but is also why you keep coming back to it.
“There is an element of things not adding up and people rewriting Shakespeare’s work anyway, but to me the beauty of the play is that it is not perfect, like any beauty. There are things you think ‘is this really necessary for the story?’ and as soon as you try to change it, you realise yes, it is necessary for the story. Even the supernatural element of the three witches, which has always puzzled me – I was thinking of leaving them out – but they are the core of the story, they are the inner voice and totally needed. I made them real people and a piece of the puzzle and intrigues of the power play in the city.”
Nesbo’s witches are indeed necessary for the story, and vividly drawn, a trio of hellish sisters rumoured to throw in the odd eye of newt or toe of frog when cooking up the hell broth on which the town is addicted.
The fascination of a flawed main character like Macbeth is something Nesbo appreciates, and one of the reasons for the popularity of his own protagonist Harry Hole. Each of Nesbo’s Hole books builds up the layers of complexity and contradiction in his character to show the moral ambiguities faced by the arbiters of justice. As time has gone on, Hole’s character has become more unorthodox as he treads an increasingly fine line between good and evil, yet always he takes the reader with him.
“The reader invests in Harry and they’re on his side,” he says. “Then you can have him moving to the dark side and the reader will support Harry whatever he does, even if he changes places with the villain. Shakespeare does this with Macbeth. First he’s a war hero known for his bravery and the good guy, but Shakespeare quickly has him go over to the dark side.”
In Nesbo’s book Macbeth is a policeman involved in the anti-corruption work of his reformer boss, Duncan, but when the temptations of high power come up, he is convinced he would be better running the city along with his casino boss lover, Lady.
“It’s a mix of motives, driven by his thirst for power and love for Lady. She is manipulating him and is the most mysterious character in the play,” says Nesbo. ”She’s the most cynical manipulator but also the one that has the most desperation, and regret.”
It’s early in the day for such grim chat, with Nesbo on the phone from his hometown of Oslo, where it’s still dark and he’s keen to leave for the coffee shop where he will start writing at 8am. He has another Harry Hole book on the go, the 12th, continuing the series after returning from a break of several years in 2017 with the much-anticipated Torst or The Thirst.
Nesbo is a creature of habit and for 17 years wrote most days in the same cafe, until it closed recently for renovation.
“Yeah, so I had to find another... but they’re never the same,” he says, sounding slightly discombobulated. “But I talked to the owners and it’s re-opening, exactly like it was. I like to go in there because they don’t disturb me: it’s my office. It will never be in the stories,” he says.
The coffee shop might not be in the stories but some of the clientele are, customers seated at other tables within eavesdropping distance of the author, in particular internet daters whose stilted conversations wound up in The Thirst.
“Yes, internet dates would turn up in the coffee shop. At first I thought they were job interviews, not dates, because they were awkward. It was just interesting to listen to conversations because there is no real social etiquette for that.”
Oslo’s coffee shops and bars, downtown with its increasingly cosmopolitan vibe, the east end where Nesbo grew up, all wind up in his fiction. Such is the Harry Hole series’ success that a micro industry of tours has sprung up to take fans to the detective’s apartment in Sofies Gate, his local eatery Restaurant Schrøder and his favourite bar, the Underwater Pub.
With its long days and short nights, short nights and long days, Oslo is integral to Nesbo’s writing, almost a character in itself, and the perfect backdrop for those who inhabit a moral twilight zone.
“When I was young I spent all my money travelling and all I wanted to do was to see the world but now travelling is so much a part of my work, it feels like luxury to wake up in my own bed,” says Nesbo who professes an unashamed love for his hometown.
The child of a librarian mother and executive father, as a youngster Nesbo fell under the spell of crime writer Jim Thompson aka “the dime store Dostoevsky”. Lord of the Flies was another early influence which Nesbo insisted his father read to him when he was seven, on account of the blood-dripping pig’s head on the cover. As well as reading, storytelling was a part of family life and he and his two brothers would compete with his father to tell the best stories, each adding a new twist or exaggeration to an old tale. The way Nesbo tells it, verisimilitude was willingly sacrificed if it got in the way of a good story.
“I grew up in a family where we told stories and there was absolutely no respect for the original version. You can come up with a version that may be better, or if not better, then different, and that was OK too. So when you’re telling a story you don’t respect the story, because it’s from the world of the writer that’s written it – I never gave that a thought – I was only looking at the story and my own relationship with it. It’s the personal take on a story that I’ve always been fascinated by.”
Why does Nesbo think we are fascinated by crime, especially Nordic noir and our own homegrown versions in Scotland?
“Your opinion is as close to the truth as mine,” he says. “It could be a kind of catharsis, like in Greek tragedies. We have a set of survival instincts. It may be in our genes to be drawn towards violence on one hand and to shy away from it on the other, something we are drawn to and fascinated by, and afraid of at the same time.”
And so like Harry Hole, Macbeth continues to fascinate audiences and readers. We all know how the play ends, and as for the Nesbo version, well, that would be telling, but it’s not too much of a spoiler to say not that well for many of the dramatis personae. But what of Harry Hole, who has become increasingly dark as the series has gone on, is there an upbeat ending in sight for our anti-hero and why does Nesbo think he has he taken a downward trajectory?
“The ending for Harry, I have always known, but I can’t tell you, or how many more books there will be,” he says. As for what goes in the books, “it’s the things you think about, the things in your head. So I’m getting older, and that makes you think about death and also care less about it.
“You have more life behind you than in front and things are not that important any longer. You are more careless, so you are focused on things that are dark, like death, yet take them more lightly than you did 20 years ago. So your themes are darker, but you treat them lighter.”
Suddenly in the middle of this musing, he breaks in businesslike: “But now I must go. It’s ten to the hour. I have to go to my cafe. I have to be there in ten minutes.”
Dark and light, good and evil, fair and foul, it’s a dark Oslo morning but there’s a brightly lit cafe waiting for Nesbo and he’s keen to crack on with his life of crime. Watch out unsuspecting coffee house daters, something wicked this way comes.
Macbeth by Jo Nesbo is out now, published by Hogarth, £20, hardback, eBook, audiobook; jonesbo.com