The Third Policeman



Another dip into the pile of books purchased in a nice shop in Bexhill-on-Sea this summer leads me to
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien.  At the time of purchase, I knew nothing about it at all, and the only reasons I got it was firstly because I had a vague memory of someone writing an article about O’Brien being exceptionally good, and secondly it had a particularly well-designed cover (recent Flamingo reprint).

The book itself is very strange, so strange in fact that although written in 1940, it did not see publication until 1967 on account of its strangeness.  I did not know it was going to be strange when I started reading.  By Chapter 3 however I was thinking, my, this is a bit strange.  

Now, years ago, I chanced upon a novel in the library of Manchester Metropolitan University, where I was studying, called The Memoirs of a Shy Pornographer, by Kenneth Patchen, in an original edition from 1945.  Knowing nothing about it, I decided to take it out and read it, simply to find out what a book published in 1945 with that title could possibly be like.  It turned out to be a highly surreal tumble of a story with 101 impossible things happening before breakfast which, although obviously daring and innovative, I have to say, I found very annoying.

When I realised that The Third Policeman was taking a turn for the strange and fully intending to stay that way for the rest of the novel, my immediate feeling was, Christ, not again; this better not turn out like that ‘Pornographer’ novel. Happily, it didn’t.  Obviously, with it being strange, describing how it did turn out is a bit hard.  I can, however, say that it involves a murderer finding himself trapped at a police station where an obsession with bicycles prevails, before discovering eternity down a lift shaft.  There is also an interwoven commentary on the life of an eccentric thinker named De Selby, with footnotes directing the reader to non-existent texts about the man.

There’s always a danger with willfully absurd novels that because anything might possibly happen next, then it doesn’t matter what actually does.  Happily, The Third Policeman escapes this very neatly as everything is all tied up within its own internal, mind-bending logic.  In fact, I would go as far to say that all the office bores up and down the land who think they’re so clever because they read Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, and discuss and quote them at any opportunity (there’s one in most offices, particularly in the public sector), should all read The Third Policeman and bore people by quoting it instead.  It would distance them from their colleagues still further, but it would finally make them as clever as they always thought they were.

Incidentally, I was unfortunate enough to look up the book on Wikipedia to try and get some context while still reading it, and found out that not only did it feature in an episode of TV show Lost, but that the writers have claimed it as a major influence and possibly even containing the key to the programme’s mystery.  Indeed, the whole thing has a Lost-like feel to it, not to mention several familiar motifs.  Once I had that piece of information, rather than considering the way the book’s elements relate to each other (which is, of course, the Correct Way to read a novel), I could not help but consider instead their relationship to Lost (despite me not having seen an episode for ages now that it’s on Sky and I have to pay for it).  Thus, my experience was polluted by needless trivia.  Oh well.

(This is not the first time I made this mistake.  I once read all one million words of Samuel Richardson’s mammoth novel Clarissa in the belief that it held vital clues as to who killed Laura Palmer.  By the end of the book, I had to concede that I was none the wiser, and had, in fact, been looking in completely the wrong place.  Sometimes you can take intertextuality too far, I’ve discovered.)


3 Responses to “The Third Policeman”

  1. I got the same requests to add some info to Book Blogs. Do you think I should make a group about bookish charities, mention it in the discussion, or leave these kinds of things out of the site altogether? What do you think?

  2. I can quite safely say, without a moment’s hesitation, that I have no idea what you’re talking about.

  3. Oh good stuff. It’s a terrific book, isn’t it? It’s apparently O’Brien’s best novel (which makes you wonder why it wasn’t published in his lifetime, when several others were). I’ve read The Poor Mouth, which I liked, but it was about 15 years ago so I can’t really say more than that; and god knows I have tried to read At Swim-Two-Birds but have failed, three times I think. Playful but maddening, unlike The Third Policeman which is playful but delightful.

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