Declan Burke is working on a new novel when Billy Karlsson appears in his back garden. Karlsson claims to be a character in one of Burke’s previously unpublished novels, a hospital porter with a sideline in euthanasia taking part in a did he/didn’t he kill his girlfriend plot. Burke’s initial response is that this is some kind of weird piece of performance art – that the supposed Karlsson has somehow got his hands on a version of the abandoned novel. What Karlsson wants is for Burke to re-draft the novel with his help; to make it out of the purgatory of a manuscript left languishing in a drawer and to become published. Playing along with Karlsson’s performance, Burke helps Billy rework the manuscript. If euthanasia isn’t enough to get the work accepted then Karlsson is going to blow up an entire hospital.
On the jacket cover, John Banville states that Absolute Zero Cool is a cross between Flann O’Brien and Raymond Chandler. I think it’s more a cross between Flann O’Brien (the Irish satirist) and Declan Burke, author of Eight Ball Boogie, The Big O and Crime Always Pays – satire and high art meets screwball noir. The nearest comparison for the existential, literary plot-play I can think of is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes novels. Whereas Fforde plays with literary theory and intertextuality, Burke uses Greek mythology, theology and philosophy to deconstruct and satirise the life of a writer, the crime novel and contemporary society, especially the Irish health system. The result is a very clever book, that’s at once fun and challenging. The prose and plot has been honed within an inch of its life, full of lovely turns of phrases, philosophical depth and keen observational insight. I wouldn’t classify Absolute Zero Cool as a page turner – it’s far too cerebral for that – and the middle of the book is a little ponderous as various pieces are moved into place, but it does have a coherent plot that tugs the reader to the somewhat inevitable end. That’s no mean feat given how postmodern the tale is, but does reveal that the book is, as Burke insists in the text itself, a crime novel and not simply a literary conceit. Absolute Zero Cool takes the crime genre and its many tropes and stereotypes and throws them out the window. It’s a genuinely unique tale. It certainly won’t be for everybody, but for those crime readers who like to be pushed and challenged this is well worth a look. Five stars all the way for me.