Review: Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

Erich Mayer

Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth, published by Random House Large, is a thriller about the struggle for power regardless of cost.
Review: Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

Cover of Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth.

Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth has been staged uncountable times with famous actors in the leading roles. It has also been adapted for film and television and even opera. This is not even the first time it has inspired a novel – Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley is one such example.

Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth was similarly inspired by Shakespeare’s play, which Nesbø sees as ‘a thriller about the struggle for power, set both in a gloomy, stormy, noir-like setting and in a dark, paranoid human mind’. This description also fits Nesbø’s novel well. Perhaps to help readers not overly familiar with the original, the main characters in Macbeth bear the same, or similar, names as their Shakespearean counterparts. This tends to tempt the reader to look for parallels in characterisation or plot, which can result in needless distraction, despite the fact that some of the similarities are well executed.

Macbeth is the central character whose ambitions override any other considerations. His rapid transition from heroic policeman to corrupt power-seeker is not entirely plausible, and the speed of his descent into ruthlessness is unconvincing, even though his paranoia is understandable. He is egged on in his misdeeds by his girlfriend, Lady, who is a caricature of an evil, scheming and domineering beauty.

Mind you, almost everyone of note in this novel is evil and corrupt. There are powerful drug dealers in conflict with each other and at times with the police. There are abundant conspiracies, and loyalty is a scarce phenomenon. The solution to many a problem is either blackmail or murder and sometimes both, with the former followed by the latter, all apparently taking place in order to achieve and hold power in a city that has long since gone to the dogs.

Nesbø is at his best when writing action scenes such as stake-outs, ambushes, gun fights, car-chases and the like, of which there is a satisfying number. But for the most part his prose is dull, even if it is elevated at times by powerful descriptions such as his depiction of streets ‘adorned with smashed beer bottles, stinking piles of spew and cigarette ends’.

Nesbø’s books have been translated from the Norwegian into numerous languages. More than 40 million of his books have been sold worldwide and many of his works have been recognised by prestigious awards. A prospective reader is therefore likely to open a book by this author with great expectations, but this crime thriller will likely disappoint.

2 stars ★★


By Jo Nesbø

Category: Literary Fiction | Crime Mysteries | Suspense & Thriller


Published by Random House Large Print
Apr 10, 2018 | 736 Pages | 6-1/8 x 9-1/4| ISBN 9780525589914

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog