The Third Policeman
by Flann O'Brien
His comings and goings have proven
maddeningly hard to track due to his many
aliases.  Born as Brian O’Nolan, this author
published his best known work under the
name Flann O’Brien, but readers of
The Irish
would have known
him better as Myles na
gCopaleen.  In other
periodicals, he took on
the name of George
Knowall.  And who knows
what other identities he
assumed in the course of his career.  He is
even said to have sent letters to the editor of
The Irish Times under various names to
complain about articles he himself had
written.  Behind all of these personae sat
Brian O’Nolan (1911-1966), who enjoyed a
day job as a civil servant, his native talent
perhaps contributing more to his
advancement than his education from
University College where, by O’Nolan’s own
description, he had focused his energies on
drinking and billiards.  The year he applied to
the civil service, several hundred candidates
competed for just three positions, but he was
helped along by his encyclopedic mind and
skill in spoken Gaelic, which had been his first
language and one he later adopted for his
An Béal Bocht.  Today he is best
remembered for his books
At Swim-Two-Birds
and The Third Policeman, which reveal his
literary daring, his wordplay, his fascination
with the unconventional, and spry, off-kilter
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

In the very opening sentence of The Third Policeman,
we learn that the narrator has murdered old man
Mathers by means of a jaw-crunching blow with a
spade.  As with other postmodern mysteries—such
as Paul Auster’s
Leviathan Thomas Bernhard's The
Lime Works, and Martin Amis’s
London Fields—the reader who
hopes to "solve" the crime before
the police or detective identify the
culprit is deterred on page one.  
The author just lays out the spe-
cifics of the crime and assigns guilt
right there and then.  What a let-
down, huh?  But at least we were
told upfront—in time to pull
another mystery novel off the shelf
and settle down for a comfy read.

But anyone who gives up on The Third Policeman at that
early juncture will have made a serious mistake.  Nothing
in this novel is what it seems at first glance.  And before
you reach the final sentence you will learn that author
Flann O’Brien (the pseudonym for Irish author Brian O’
Nolan) has set you up.  Every one of the key elements—
the nature of the crime, the name of the victim, the
consequences, the motive—will be subject to
reconsideration and revision.  

We get a hint of this early on in the novel, when the
dead-and-buried murder victim comes back to life.  Yet
Crothers will be dead
again a few chapters later...and  
then make still another resurrection towards the end of
the book.  Yet—strange to say!—a dead man walking is
one of the lesser curios O’Brien has in store for his
readers.   The first rise-from-the-grave moment sets off
a series of absurdist incidents that seem to push
Third Policeman
out of the realm of crime novel and into
the camp of surrealist literature.

Here are some of the things that you will encounter over
the course of this peculiar novel:  a machine that will
make, out of nothing, a solid block of gold that weighs
half a ton; a cigarette that never gets used up no matter
how much you smoke it; paint of a color unlike any
previously seen;  an army of one-legged men, who tie
themselves together in pairs to give themselves extra
mobility in fighting; an elevator that takes you to
eternity;  bicycles that are half-people and people who
are half-bicycle; etc. etc.

As these examples make clear, O’Brien is not afraid to
take chances, and a book that starts out with overtones
Crime and Punishment soon takes on a flavor more akin
Alice in Wonderland.  Juxtaposed against this, O’Brien
inserts a scholarly subplot dealing with a long deceased
thinker named de Selby—much of which transpires in
the context of lengthy footnotes to the text.  Our
unnamed narrator has hopes of writing a definitive "De
Selby Index," and seizes any pretext to ramble on about
the great philosopher.  

But here again, what seems to be a sober, realistic
element in the story quickly collapses into a series of
outrageous vignettes.  De Selby, as it turns out, believed
in the most unreasonable things—that night was caused
not by the movement of heavenly bodies, but by an
accumulation of “black air”;  that people could see what
they looked like as youngsters by employing two
properly placed mirrors and a telescope;  that you could
travel to another city without leaving your room, etc.    
As one gets deeper and deeper into this novel, the
reader is reminded less and less of other literary works,
and instead finds points of comparison with those
storytellers famous for entertaining the credulous with a
series of tall, taller and tallest tales.

If this book were just a compendium of impossibilities
and extravagant theories, it might charm and entertain but
hardly deserve consideration as a masterwork.  O’Brien’s
skill, however, becomes increasingly apparent over the
course of the novel, and especially in the final pages
when he starts to realign the key elements of his story.  
He pulls the disparate elements of plot and symbolism
together into a surprising whole, tying together threads
that one might have thought irrecoverably torn asunder.   
Eventually he forces you to adopt a new interpretation
of the narrative you have just read, one that makes you
anxious to go back again to the beginning and start
reading the novel a second time—if only to see how he
did it.  

This book, originally written in 1939-40, remained
unpublished during the author’s lifetime.  Longman’s, the
publishing house that had released O’Brien’s debut
novel, rejected this follow-up effort, explaining that the
author showed ability, but “should become less fantastic
and in this new novel he is more so.”  O’Nolan also
tried without success to find a publisher in the United
States, before putting the manuscript aside—even later
claiming that he had lost it.  But the work was published
to acclaim posthumously in 1967, a year after the author’
s death.  

This novel is perhaps still somewhat less well known
than the same author’s
At Swim-Two-Birds, an exercise in
metafiction that very much anticipated later
postmodernist currents.  Yet
The Third Policeman has
expanded its following over the years, and shows up in
odd and surprising places—not just in the literary world
but also, for example, on a 2005 episode of
Lost (leading
to a huge spike in the book’s sales due to the novel's
rumored importance as a key to unlocking hidden
meanings in this often cryptic series) and the next year
on the animated show
Minoriteam.  This book’s staying
power and the almost cult-like advocacy of its readers
tends to validate the prediction of critic Hugh Kenner,
who suggested years ago that
The Third Policeman “will be
rediscovered, and again, and again. There's no killing a
piece of mythic power like that.”

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
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