History: Brian O'Nolan, writing under the pseudonym Flann O'Brien wrote this novel. It was written between 1939 and 1940, but after it initially failed to find a publisher, the author withdrew the manuscript from circulation and claimed he had lost it. The book remained unpublished until his death in 1966.
In 1940, O'Nolan completed the novel and circulated the typescript among friends in Dublin. He submitted it to Longman's, the English publisher of his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, but they declined to publish it. O'Nolan believed that Graham Greene, a champion of his that earlier, was still a reader with the company, when in fact he was not. Consequently, the novel fell on less sympathetic ears.
The American author William Saroyan, who had become acquainted with O'Nolan during a brief stay in Dublin, offered the use of his literary agent in finding an American publisher, but with no success. O'Nolan made no further attempts at publication and shelved the manuscript, claiming that it had been lost. O'Nolan told his friends that while on a driving through Donegal the boot of his car opened unknown to him, causing the manuscript to flutter out page by page until it was gone. In reality he left it on the sideboard in his dining room, in plain view to him every day as he ate, for 26 years.
The Third Policeman was featured in a 2005 episode of television series Lost with the intent of providing context for the show's complex mythology, with the result that sales of the book in the three weeks following its mention equaled what it had sold in the preceding six years.
Plot: The Third Policeman is set in rural Ireland and is narrated by a dedicated amateur scholar of De Selby, a scientist and philosopher. The narrator, whose name we never learn, is orphaned at a young age. At boarding school, he discovers the work of de Selby and becomes a fanatically dedicated student of it. One night he breaks his leg under mysterious circumstances – "if you like, it was broken for me" – and he is ultimately fitted with a wooden leg to replace the original one. On returning to his family home, he meets and befriends John Divney who is in charge of the family farm and pub. Over the next few years, the narrator devotes himself to the study of de Selby's work and leaves Divney to run the family business.
By the time the narrator is thirty, he has written what he believes to be the definitive critical work on de Selby, but does not have enough money to publish the work. Divney observes that Mathers, a local man, "is worth a packet of potato-meal" and eventually it dawns on the narrator that Divney plans to rob and kill Mathers. The narrator and Divney encounter Mathers one night on the road and Divney knocks Mathers down with a bicycle pump. The narrator, prompted by Divney, finishes Mathers off with a spade, and then notices that Divney has disappeared with Mathers's cash box. When Divney returns he refuses to reveal where the cash box is, and fends off the narrator's repeated inquiries. To ensure that Divney does not retrieve the box unobserved, the narrator becomes more and more inseparable from Divney, eventually sharing a bed with him: "the situation was a queer one and neither of us liked it".
Three years pass, in which the previously amicable relationship between the narrator and Divney breaks down. Eventually Divney reveals that the box is hidden under the floorboards in Mathers's old house, and instructs the narrator to fetch it. The narrator follows Divney's instructions but just as he reaches for the box, "something happened":
It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation.
The box has disappeared, and the narrator is perplexed to notice that Mathers is in the room with him. During a surreal conversation with the apparently deceased Mathers, the narrator hears another voice speaking to him which he realises is his soul: "For convenience I called him Joe." The narrator is bent on finding the cash box, and when Mathers tells him about a remarkable police barracks nearby he resolves to go to the barracks and enlist the help of the police in finding the box. On the way, he meets a one-legged bandit named Martin Finnucane, who threatens to kill him but who becomes his friend upon finding out that his potential victim is also one-legged. The narrator approaches the police barracks and is disturbed by its appearance:
It looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing.
Inside the barracks he meets two of the three policemen, Sergeant Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen, who speak largely in non sequitur and who are entirely obsessed with bicycles. There he is introduced to various peculiar or irrational concepts, artifacts, and locations, including a contraption that collects sound and converts it to light based on a theory regarding omnium, the fundamental energy of the universe; a vast underground chamber called 'Eternity,' where time stands still, mysterious numbers are devoutly recorded and worried about by the policemen; a box from which anything you desire can be produced; and an intricate carved chest containing a series of identical but smaller chests. The infinite nature of this last device causes the narrator great mental and spiritual discomfort. It is later discovered that Mathers has been found dead and eviscerated in a ditch. Joe suspects Martin Finnucane, but to the narrator's dismay he himself is charged with the crime because he is the most convenient suspect. He argues with Sergeant Pluck that since he is nameless, and therefore, as Pluck observed, "invisible to the law", he cannot be charged with anything. Pluck is surprised, but after he unsuccessfully attempts to guess the narrator's name he reasons that since the narrator is nameless he is not really a person, and can therefore be hanged without fear of repercussions:
The particular death you die is not even a death (which is an inferior phenomenon at best) only an insanitary abstraction in the backyard.
The narrator calls on the help of Finnucane, but his rescue is thwarted by MacCruiskeen riding a bicycle painted an unknown colour which drives those who see it mad. He faces the gallows, but the two policemen are called away by dangerously high readings in the underground chamber. The following day he escapes from the barracks on a bicycle of unusual perfection.
As he rides through the countryside, he passes Mathers's house and sees a light. Disturbed, he enters the house and finally meets the mysterious and reportedly all-powerful third policeman, Fox, who has the face of Mathers.] Fox's secret police station is in the walls of Mathers's house. He tells the narrator that he is the architect of the readings in the underground chamber, which he alters for his amusement, thereby inadvertently saving the narrator's life. Fox goes on to tell the narrator that he found the cash box and has sent it to the narrator's home, where it is waiting for him. He also reveals that the box contains not money but omnium, which can become anything he desires. Elated by the possibilities before him, the narrator leaves Fox's police station and goes home looking forward to seeing Divney once again; on arrival he finds that while only a few days have passed in his own life, his accomplice is sixteen years older, with a wife and children. Divney can see the narrator, although the others cannot, and he has a heart attack from the shock. He shouts that the narrator was supposed to be dead, for the black box was not filled with money but a bomb and it exploded when the narrator reached for it. The narrator leaves Divney on the floor, apparently dying.
Feeling "sad, empty and without a thought", the narrator leaves the house and walks away down the road. He soon approaches the police barracks, the book using exactly the same words to describe the barracks and the narrator's opinion of it that were used earlier, the story having circled around itself and restarted. This time, John Divney joins the narrator on the road; they neither look at nor speak to each other. They both enter the police station and are confronted by Sergeant Pluck, who repeats his earlier dialogue and ends the book with a reprise of his original greeting to the narrator:
"Is it about a bicycle?" he asked.
Review: In The Third Policeman, our hero and narrator, a nameless young man with a wooden leg, assists in a money-motivated killing, and, after trying to retrieve the stashed goods some time later, passes into a strange otherness -- a place that superficially resembles the Irish countryside, but which casually disobeys the normal laws of How Things Work. He encounters a small building of impermanent and shifting geometry which turns out to be the local barracks -- it is here that he meets the policemen. The novel has that special quality -- the fantastic made believable, yet retaining its power to amaze -- that is the hallmark of authors like Borges, Kafka, or Barthelme. The events are alternately frightening, baffling, and hilarious, and are brought into three dimensions by perfect, musical prose.
Much of the book’s humor comes from references to the fictional physicist ‘de Selby’, a sort of anti-Newton whose completely absurd theories sound almost plausible in the framework of the novel’s demonic logic. De Selby, noting that light takes a portion of time, however small, to reach its target, came upon the idea that if a network of mirrors were aligned properly a viewer could actually see into the past through a series of repeated reflections:
“What he states to have seen through his glass is astonishing. He claims to have noticed a growing youthfulness in the reflections of his face according as they receded, the most distant of them -- being the face of a beardless boy of twelve, and, to use his own words, ‘a countenance of singular beauty and nobility’.”
Among de Selby’s other arguments are the existence of night as passing clouds of black, volcanically produced pollution; the idea that all names originate from descriptive, prehistoric grunts (and that by decoding this system of grunts, one could ascertain another’s appearance merely by studying their name); the possibility that the Earth is not a sphere, but an ovoid; and the nature of sleep as a series of minor heart attacks (brought on by exposure to the black air).
But de Selby is merely a side story. The main of the book is devoted to the solution of our young hero’s mystery, and to the further mystery of the bizarre policemen which populate the world he has wandered into. The policemen speak in an infectious, over-wrought dialogue that you’ll have to take care not to pick up yourself. They invent devices that turn noise into electricity. They take gauge readings in a subterranean, industrial version of eternity. I don’t want to delve too far into this storyline, rather I urge you to discover it for yourself. You’ll never ride a bicycle again.
Published by Dalkey Archive press (named after another O’Brien book), The Third Policeman, although not O’Brien’s most famous book, is one that must not be allowed to be forgotten. More images are painted in its 200 pages than in the massive Pulitzer contenders of today, more fantasy and dream than in a million pages of Tolkien or Rowling. Reading this book will actually improve your imagination, your speech, your intelligence. And you’ll lose weight (provided you don’t eat until you finish). Far fetched claims, I know, but they’ll hold true within the strange laws of The Third Policeman, as sure as the Earth is sausage-shaped.
Critical interpretations to The Third Policeman have been varied. Anne Clissman, in the first major study of Flann O'Brien's work, considers the book to be "in many ways a continuation of some of the ideas expressed in At Swim". She described the book as "in parts, extremely amusing, but the overall effect is anything but funny" and noted that the book "shows a fixity of purpose and clarity" which she contrasted with the "organised chaos" of At Swim-Two-Birds. Clissman regards the novel as a less experimental work than At Swim:
Its central concern is not, as in At Swim, with varying methods of presenting reality in fiction, but with reality viewed through the medium of scientific and philosophical concepts.
Keith Hopper, writing twenty years after Clissman, regards The Third Policeman somewhat differently. Regarding it as "the first great masterpiece [...] of what we generally refer to now as post-modernism", he argues that the book is not less but more formally experimental than At Swim-Two-Birds:
Contrary to O'Nolan's assertion that this novel was without the 'difficulties and fireworks' of At Swim-Two-Birds, this is a more radical and involved metafictional fantasy.
Hopper interprets the narrator's journey as "a quest to discover the borderland between reality and fiction", noting the narrator's "flickering between an awareness that he is a character trapped within a fictional order and his realist belief that he is a 'real-life' person.
The critic Hugh Kenner, in a 1997 essay entitled "The Fourth Policeman", advanced a hypothesis to explain why O'Nolan had suppressed the manuscript. Noting the complex ways in which the novel draws on pagan traditions in Middle and Early Modern Irish literature, as well as the ways in which it confounds attempts to inscribe it within a realist tradition, Kenner argued that the book created a "cartoon of Ireland" that was "brilliant but disturbingly coherent." Kenner argues that the book's failure to find a publisher must have caused O'Nolan to reread it, whereupon O'Nolan (in Kenner's account) must have been so "unsettled" by the book's effect, "for he liked his effects under rational control [...] and this book grimaced at him, from expressive levels he was careful never to monkey with again", that he suppressed it; not out of despair of it reaching a publisher but because it offended his own "explicitly formed and highly orthodox conscience". Kenner calls O'Nolan's Catholic conscience the "Fourth Policeman" of his essay's title. Kenner finishes the essay by predicting that while The Third Policeman may tend to be neglected in favour of O'Nolan's first novel:
...it will be rediscovered, and again, and again. There's no killing a piece of mythic power like that.
In a letter to William Saroyan, dated 14 February 1940, O'Nolan explained the strange plot of The Third Policeman:
When you get to the end of this book you realize that my hero or main character (he's a heel and a killer) has been dead throughout the book and that all the queer ghastly things which have been happening to him are happening in a sort of hell which he earned for the killing ... It is made clear that this sort of thing goes on for ever ... When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.
In a passage that was omitted from the published novel, O'Nolan wrote:
Joe had been explaining things in the meantime. He said it was again the beginning of the unfinished, the re-discovery of the familiar, the re-experience of the already suffered, the fresh-forgetting of the unremembered. Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable.
Opening Line: “Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers – smashing his jaw with my spade.”
Closing Line: “"Is it about a bicycle?" he asked.”
Quotes: "Your talk," I said, "is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand."
Rating: Not good.