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Paint it black

NEVER believe a writer when they tell you they don't care what the critics think. Declan Burke doesn't. The 42-year-old Sligo-born writer has just seen his third book, Absolute Zero Cool, published and he's refreshingly honest about the forthcoming critical scrutiny.

"Of course I care what critics think," he says. "I review books and movies myself so it'd be hypocritical of me to say that I don't care. And I'd care anyway, because although you write a book for yourself -- or at least I do -- there's no point unless other people read it. I have a theory that writing a book is only 50pc of the job; the other 50pc comes when someone picks it up and starts reading."

Burke shouldn't have much to worry about. Fellow writers, such as bestseller John Connolly, Booker Prize winner John Banville and crime guru Ken Bruen have been queuing up to heap praise on Absolute Zero Cool, with Banville particularly effusive, describing it as a "cross between Flann O'Brien and Raymond Chandler".

An ambitious, satisfying black comedy, Absolute Zero Cool sees Burke taking great delight in subverting genres within the very loose framework of a crime thriller. So dark is the novel-within-a-novel premise that it makes Fight Club look like a Marx Brothers knockabout comedy: cut adrift in an unfinished book, a hospital porter, with a sideline in euthanasia, decides to blow up the hospital where he works.


It's all part of an effort to make sure the novelist returns to his story, finishes it and gives the porter eternal life in a published book. And it's then that things start to get really weird . . .

"I wrote the first draft not long after the attacks on the Twin Towers. I was as shocked as everyone else by 9/11 but what was really freaky about it was that it was the terrorists using Western civilisation's tools -- jet airliners -- against itself. A lot of commentary back then was about how outsiders could infiltrate the system, but what was even scarier for me was when it was insiders attacking the system from within. So I looked around for a target that would completely freak people out if terrorists targeted it. I didn't have to look far -- virtually every large town has its own hospital, and because the hospital represents humanity at its best, in the way that we take care of our sick and elderly, it made the perfect target for the character."

So far, so freaky. While the book makes for horrifying reading in places, you can't fault the level of ambition. Burke, who has already edited an anthology of Irish crime fiction, Down These Green Streets, earlier this year and is also the host of a website, Crime Always Pays, believes that Irish crime writing is in a good place.

"Ireland has a population roughly of greater Chicago and there's a great ratio of excellent writers out there. Not every new Irish title is a brilliant one, but there's a pretty good strike rate going," he says.


Which is a lot more than you can say for Scandinavian crime writing, especially since the worldwide explosion of the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy.

You can't walk into a book shop these days without bumping into a stand proclaiming another writer with another unpronounceable name as "the new Stieg Larsson".

"There are some terrific Scandinavian writers -- Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum -- but there's a lot of very ordinary writers too, and I'd put Stieg Larsson into that group.

"There's snobbery out there about crime writing. But it's also true that a lot of the high-profile crime writers, the real break-outs like James Patterson, Dan Brown and John Grisham, say, aren't particularly fussed about the quality of their prose, for example. Which, to me, is a disaster, because people tend to concentrate on the page-turning quality of a book, and not hold people to account for having no ambition when it comes to language. That's like describing a car as being beautifully streamlined, and ignoring the fact that it has no wheels."

Absolute Zero Cool (Liberties Press, €12.99) is available now