Crime writer Declan Burke has introduced a surreal twist into the genre for his new novel Absolute Zero Cool that is earning him comparisons to an Irish literary legend. The Co Sligo-born novelist talks about murder, philosophy and washing his laundry....
A psycopathic mass murderer who plans to blow up the hospital where he works is fairly standard fare in a crime novel, but when he steps out of an abandoned manuscript to confront the author who created him we are in to new territory.
Declan Burke’s surreal take on the noir genre is generating rave reviews – including thumbs up from John Banville, Ken Bruen, John Connolly and Colin Bateman – and the character-confronting-the-author twist has seen Burke being compared to Flann O’Brien.
“I’m a big fan of Flann O’Brien, and particularly At-Swim-Two-Birds – I’ve always loved that idea of messing about with the way you can tell a story and especially the idea that the characters in a book are entitled to have their say about how the story is going,” Burke says.
“You can get a bit heavy about it and talk about how it’s an expression of free will, with the writer being ‘God’ and the characters ‘human beings’ – I mean, if your life is a story, don’t you feel like you’re entitled to have some say in how it‘ll work out?
“I didn’t sit down and say, ‘Right, I’m going to write a Flann O’Brien book.’
“The way the story came out is the way it needed to be to tell this particular story.
“And besides, that kind of narrative playfulness is far older than Flann O’Brien. It’s nearly as old as the novel itself, going all the way back to Tristram Shandy.”
Absolute Zero Cool is splattered with literary and philosophical references, with Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus and even Nietzsche being namechecked.
“To be honest, all that literary stuff is part of the book being a bit of a spoof on literature, and especially literature with a capital ‘L’, Taking the wee out of the ‘literary establishment,’” Burke says.
“Again, it comes down to people taking things too seriously. I mean, Beckett especially, he can be a very funny writer, even if it’s a black kind of humour he uses.
“At one point the two main characters get into an argument as to whether the story is a crime novel or a literary novel and it becomes a big issue between them. But I don’t buy into that rubbish. As Raymond Chandler once said, there’s only two kinds of books, good books and bad books.
“Any other distinction is just marketing and snobbery.”
Despite the literary references and distrubing plot Burke spices his writing with dark humour and one-liners.
“It’s probably fair to say that the plot and the comedy fed off each other,” he says.
“I mean, it’s a serious enough story if you read a short synopsis – a deranged hospital porter sets out to blow up his hospital.
“But maybe I’m a bit strange because that story idea occurred to me as something funny, especially as the hospital porter is deranged by logic.
“Things that can seem very straightforward can very quickly get blackly funny if you push them to their extremes.
“I find it hard to write without injecting humour into the proceedings here and there, mainly because it can be very easy to take yourself too seriously if you don’t lighten up once in a while.”
Burke is well known to the Irish crime fiction fraternity – writers and readers – through his crimealwayspays blog.
It is the first point of call for fans of the genre from throughout the world. It was also a platform for airing Absolute Zero Cool as a work in progress.
“It was great to get feedback on the story from people who were reading it on the blog,” Burke says.
“Writing can be a bit of a solitary gig and there are times when you feel you’re just shouting down a well.
“So it was nice to know that people were paying attention and felt engaged enough to react to what they were reading.
“I know a lot of writers say they’re only writing for themselves but I don’t know about that.
“If you were only writing for yourself, you wouldn’t bother trying to get the book published once it was written, would you?
“That said, it did feel a bit odd at first, because you’re making your mistakes in public – it’s a bit like washing your laundry in the town square. It was a good experiment, though.”
And the writer in the novel who is confronted by his abandoned fictional creation is called Declan Burke. So, any resemblance?
“It was just a bit of fun to put ‘Declan Burke’ into the story, especially as the character is a writer, because the fact of the matter is that the real Declan Burke isn’t really a writer, he’s a freelance journalist who gets to write a couple of hours a day, if he’s lucky.
“And I should probably stop referring to myself in the third person, or I’ll be locked up.”
Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke is published in paperback and as an e-book by Liberties Press.
This interview was written for an first appeared in The Irish News.