The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien – A Review

How do I explain the appeal of a novel that is an exercise in the absurd? I could say that it is part Alice in Wonderland, part academic text and part murder mystery but to describe it as the sum of its parts doesn’t do this book justice at all.  To quote another artist specialising in the realm of the weird, this book is about “life the universe and everything”.It is also a Tardis of a book, clocking in at just two hundred pages and belying the depth of mischief and plot that lies within.

What blew me away about the book is that it starts off in such a hum drum manner.  The story begins with nameless narrator describing his parents early death and a man, Divney, who is trusted with the boys estate but is reluctant to relinquish possession when the boy (now our grown protagonist) comes to claim his inheritance – so far, so standard Irish fare.  However, by the end of the first chapter, a local man has been murdered by the pair and our protagonist goes on a hunt to retrieve the ‘box’ containing their spoils.

Like Alice down the rabbit hole, so begins our hero’s journey.  Finding his way to a policeman’s barracks he meets Sargent Pluck and Policeman McCruiskeen and he also hears about the absence of a ‘third’ policeman too.  The men are obsessed with bicycles, seem to know an awful lot about the ‘true’ laws of physics – at one point describing how Atomic energy logically means that if one spends too long on a bicycle – man and bike are likely to merge where it will become hard to know where one ends and the other begins – and seem to know the place where eternity is stashed away.

The author uses several stylistic techniques, such as the type of extensive footnoting that you might find in the textbooks of so many academic windbags (as something of an academic windbag myself, I found his style very amusing). This approach never lets us forget that we are in the realm of the fantastical and yet, somehow his logic within this world seems perfectly sound.  The protagonist is an expert in the philosophical writings of de Selby and we are diverted from the main plot (if that’s a fair word) at regular intervals to consider the greater meaning of things.

Written in 1940, Flann O’Brien’s publishers rejected the novel on the basis that O’Brien was becoming more and not less absurd, as they would have liked.  Consequently the book languished until 1967. Yet, it is unfair to dismiss this book as pure nonsense for nonsense sake.  The novel’s legacy is written all over more contemporary pieces – Patrick McCabe and Douglas Adams, at least to my mind, are likely bedfellows for his work – and there is family tree of absurdist literature in which the Third Policeman is a particularly sturdy branch.

Those of you who watched the TV show Lost will see directly the influence this novel continues to have today.

So I would suggest that you get on yer bikes and follow Alice down the rabbit hole for an adventure quite like no other.