Shakespeare was a master of crime fiction! Look at how his plots develop and the manner in which he deals with mystery, intrigue, betrayal, ambition and the underworld. It does make you wonder what kind of contemporary crime titles he might have penned. With the current fixation regarding re-writes of Austen classics then perhaps it’s worth using one of his plots for a novel.
I have been thinking about Macbeth, as it happens, while I have been in my study working on The Unwanted, my latest crime novel. Shakespeare’s play is a brilliant study of how power corrupts and leads people into committing atrocities. It is as pertinent now as it was 400 years ago.
It seems amazing that every eighteen months or so there is a new production of Macbeth and you wonder what can possibly be said about this play. Yet when you consider its complexity and the way Shakespeare understood the psychology of human nature, it shows there is always something else to explore within the context of a developing society.
Right now a new production of the play is being staged at the Trafalgar Studios in London and the main parts go to the talented actor James McAvoy who was so stunning in the film Atonement and Claire Foy who starred in the BBC series White Heat. This interpretation is set 50 years in the future and I shall certainly get back to London for a performance.
So far as a crime thriller is concerned Macbeth is up amongst the best. The insight that Shakespeare shows in his characterisation is astonishing. We see a hero who is tempted to commit a crime at the very height of his fame and glory and who tragically succumbs. It shows how no matter who you are and where you belong in society something can trigger an unexpected unsavoury response. A prediction given to Macbeth by witches after a stunning success on the battlefield is just the beginning of a train of events which lead him to murder his king and then begin a reign of terror.
We care about Macbeth because we know he is brave, loyal and true at the start of the plot and therefore there is pity for what happens to him even though he turns into an evil butcher by the end. It almost sets a blueprint for crime fiction if you consider it. Think of all the detectives who are flawed, who have guilty secrets, who use unpalatable methods to get result. We like the loners, the outsiders, those who have fallen from grace and become mavericks.
To a degree some people are fascinated by what goes on in the minds of the famous and the good; look at popular obsession with celebrity titles such as OK magazine ( I am not a fan but many are). We love to know what politicians and celebrities are thinking and in the same way I try to enter the psyche of one of my villains and working through his or her flaws. I believe that crime fiction can hold a mirror to society and dealing with horrific scenes can allow a crime writer to become very deep; it’s not just about creating a beautiful turn of phrase or how many metaphors we can fit into a page when it comes to this genre; we have to live in the mind of the character.
But returning to the Macbeth plot, it is fascinating to watch the mental collapse of his partner in crime, Lady Macbeth. This is really riveting stuff as it is she who questions Macbeth’s manhood when he initially says he cannot kill the king. Ironically she is the one who begins to sleep walk and suffer from compulsive disorders where she is unable to wash her hands clean of blood.
Our hero goes on to commit ever more atrocious crimes labouring under the misapprehension he is invincible. It is only when his greatest foe breaks the spell at the end of the play that we suddenly see what really is in store for Macbeth.
If he was an out and out bad guy we would have no sympathy or empathic response. The greatest crime writers manage to elicit just a sneaking admiration or sense of compassion, albeit momentarily, for their characters and that is what makes crime fiction so addictive to write.
When Macbeth says after the suicide of his wife, ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps on this petty day from day to day’, we can feel his isolation, how power corrupts and brings its own set of rules which can be just as testing as a crime. When you are writing against the backdrop of the underworld and human trafficking you can really understand the true meaning of Macbeth’s words.