The Third Policeman by

ISBN: 0586087494
See also: Scriptorium ; Ted’s Thoughts

Not everyone knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar.

Recently this book has been brought back to public attention by the creators of Lost who said that anyone who has read it may have a greater insight into their TV show. But that shouldn’t be the reason you pick up this book. Flann O’Brien is one of the pseudonyms of Brian O’Nolan. Well known in Ireland for his satirical columns in the Irish Times which he wrote for almost 30 years, beginning in the 1940’s. This is my first Flann O’Brien novel, and I think I’ll have to read some more.

The plot revolves around a murder and a theft. Or maybe about the bicycles becoming human and humans turning into bikes. Possibly it is about the nature of guilt. Or maybe it doesn’t have a plot at all, because it is surreal. At the very least it is surreal; weird and wtf-ish might be more accurate a description. But it is still readable and enjoyable.

The blurb on my version calls it a “hilarious comic satire”. I didn’t think it was hilarious, but I do think that if you had the patience to read it out loud it might be hilarious. It seemed to me that a lot of what was entertaining about this read would have been better if it was performed. I’m not quite sure why I think this, probably due to the use of language in the book.

In case you aren’t familiar with the theory behind men turning into bikes I give you this extract:

‘Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical figure too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go. These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms. Do you follow me intelligently?’
‘Yes.’
‘They are lively as twenty leprechauns doing a jig on top of a tombstone.’ […] ‘Consecutively and consequentially,’ he continued, ‘you can safely infer that you are made of atoms yourself…The gross and net result of it is that people who spend most of their natural live riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycles as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles.’
I let go a gasp of astonishment that made a sound in the air like a bad puncture.
‘And you would be flabbergasted at the number of bicycles that are half-human almost halg-man, half-partaking of humanity.’

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4 Responses

  1. Harlequin says:

    The same thing happens to ordinary plain biscuits like digestives or something that are left in the biscuit tin with custard cremes. Soon the plain biccies all taste like yucky custart cremes. Ick.

    I told my mother, with her food science education about this and apparently it actually happens. The exchange of custard creme electrons with digestive biscuit electrons.

    Ain't science fun?

    <li class="authorcomment">So is it the plain biccies riding the custard cremes, or the other way round?

  2. James says:

    A decent book. I agree that 'hilarious' is pushing it a bit, but Flann O'Brien's writing style in itself is very entertaining – the elaborate descriptions of very mundane actions, and the grandiloquence of some of his characters. I preferred At Swim Two Birds and the Dalkey Archive, both of which were lighter than the Third Policeman, lacking the underlying unpleasantness.

  3. Fence says:

    I'll have to give both of those a go James, I'm pretty sure de mudder has at least one of them on the bookshelves.

  4. Dilworth says:

    This is a great book, the best O'Brian wrote. It pre-Becketts Beckett, written in 1940. If it had been published then it would have made Beckett seem less original than he does. It is a mixture of funniness and horror which makes a unique reading experience. The de Selbian nonsense is sometime wearying, hust as the visit to mechanistic 'Eternity' is awful–the reader has the entire disquiting experience, which he or she later realizes is hell. And the more you think about this book–I've read it 5 or 6 times in the last 20 years, the more its parts make symbolic sense: eg. the narrator's obsession with de Selby is a psychological analogue to the Atomic Theory by which men become bicycles and visa versa. There simply is no other book like this. It is the greatest nearly unknown novel written in English, a must read.