The Third Policeman: A Novel

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Dalkey Archive Press, 1996 - Fiction - 200 pages
6 Reviews

The Third Policeman is Flann O'Brien's brilliantly dark comic novel about the nature of time, death, and existence. Told by a narrator who has committed a botched robbery and brutal murder, the novel follows him and his adventures in a two-dimensional police station where, through the theories of the scientist/philosopher de Selby, he is introduced to "Atomic Theory" and its relation to bicycles, the existence of eternity (which turns out to be just down the road), and de Selby's view that the earth is not round but "sausage-shaped." With the help of his newly found soul named "Joe, " he grapples with the riddles and contradictions that three eccentric policeman present to him.

The last of O'Brien's novels to be published, The Third Policeman joins O'Brien's other fiction (At Swim-Two-Birds, The Poor Mouth, The Hard Life, The Best of Myles, and The Dalkey Archive) to ensure his place, along with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, as one of Ireland's great comic geniuses.


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This book is a masterpiece and one of the best comic novels ever written. It is hilarious but also haunting, strange and utterly original.

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The Third Policeman is a brilliant masterpiece of nihilistic postmodern literature.
This book is hilarious throughout, especially the mad ramblings of the philosoper named de Selby and the
frustrated efforts of his academic readers to rationalize his wild theories. de Selby writes vague commentary full of ironic litotes- for example: "he indicates that 'the happy state is not unassociated with water' and that 'water is rarely absent from any wholly satisfactory situation' ... He praises the equilibrium of water, its circumambiency, equiponderance and equitableness, and declares that water, 'if not abused', can achieve 'absolute superiority.'" The recorded responses of the expert panel of his readers constantly either bombastically claim conspiracy against them by other experts or declare that the piece of writing under scrutiny is a forgery and not written by de Selby. Their work is hampered by the fact that nobody can seem to find the definitive volume of his works, and furthermore the libraries they do have are completely illegible. It's impossible to read through the pages-long footnotes referencing de Selby's work without falling into fits of giggles at the absurdity of completely inappropriate word choices and the respect with which they delicately criticize de Selby's insane ideas. Additionally, nearly every line of dialogue with the enormously fat policemen is full of ridiculous malapropisms. The policeman are alarmed continuously by arbitrary readings "of uncalculable perilousness" they take from clocks and levers, and their ramblings about figures and graphs never cease to consternate the narrator and amuse the reader.
However the overall theme of the book is not one of humor but one of confusion and frustration, and, ultimately, terror. At every turn the narrator is confronted with inexplicable phenomena that are rendered even more inscrutable by the policemen's confidently preposterous explanations. His confusion and desperation to return home rises throughout the novel, exacerbated by his extremely narrow escape from his execution. Near the end of the story the reader can palpably feel the horror of the narrator every time the third policeman says something seeming to hint that he knows about the narrator's crime of murder. Frantic with prolonged stress and unexplainable surprises (such as that the third policeman seems to be the man he murdered) he finally makes it home safely on a female bicycle, but not to the peace he so desperately wanted. His roommate dies of fright at seeing the narrator, revealing at the last that during one of the previous events of the story he had killed the narrator with a mine, and that the narrator's fiendishly inexplicable experiences including encounters with ghosts and intricate manipulation by the third policeman were explained by the narrator being dead and in hell. Filled with horror the narrator runs blindly down road towards the police station, unwittingly setting the stage for the story to repeat again. The narrator is presumably trapped in this cycle of torture without end.
This is by no means an exhaustive summary of the book's plot; it includes such things as an enormous underground network of tunnels constructed by the third policeman, an attempted riot by one-legged men who tie themselves together so as to have two legs per fighting unit, and endless discussion with the policemen on the unusual and ubiquitous topic of bicycles.

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About the author (1996)

Writer Brian O'Nolan was born on October 5, 1911. He graduated from University College, Dublin. This gifted Irish writer had three identities: Brian O'Nolan, an Irish civil servant and administrator; Myles Copaleen, columnist for the Irish Times, poet and author of An Beal Bocht (The Poor Mouth: A Bad Story about the Hard Life, 1941), a satire in Gaelic on the Gaelic revival; and Flann O'Brien, playwright and avant-garde comic novelist. His masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), went almost unrecognized in its time. This novel, which plays havoc with the conventional novel form, is about a man writing a book about characters in turn writing about him. O'Brien starts off with three separate openings. The Third Policeman (1967), funny but grim, plunges into the world of the dead, though one is not immediately aware that the protagonist is no longer living. He died on April 1, 1966.

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