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 Times 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 novel 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

Essay 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
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 specifics of the crime and
assigns guilt right there and
then. What a letdown, 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
The 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 of
Crime and Punishment soon takes on a
flavor more akin to
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

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 Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
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Further Clues:

Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman and Lost

Flann O'Brien: Life

"We Laughed, We Cried: Flann O'Brien's Triumph" by
Roger Boylan
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