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Flann O’Brien: The Third Policeman

This novel was written immediately after At Swim-Two-Birds but, after the failure of At Swim-Two-Birds, Longmans declined to publish it. O’Brien put it away, telling friends that the manuscript was lost. This novel is as difficult to summarise as its predecessor. There is no Chinese box but the narrator, as we later discover, is dead. He had met John Divney, working in a pub, and Divney persuades the narrator to help him rob and murder an old man, called Mathers. The narrator later goes back to Mathers’ house to get the cash box that Divney had left there. There he meets the (dead) Mathers and his own soul. On the way out, he meets Finnucane, who plans to kill the narrator but lets him go when he sees that he is one-legged, like Finnucane. He goes to the police station where strange things happen. The police are going to arrest Finnucane for Mathers’ murder but cannot find him, so arrest the narrator and hang him. The narrator, who is now dead, goes back to Mathers’ house, where he meets Fox, the third policeman, who looks like Mathers. He also meets Divney. Though he thinks only a few minutes have passed, Divney tells him hat he has been dead for sixteen years. Divney then dies and things start all over.

This is a very tortuous plot, particularly as we learn that the narrator has been living in hell and that he is a follower of the mysterious philosopher, de Selby, who believes the world to be sausage-shaped and that you can imagine a journey and thereby do it. We also learn of other commentators on de Selby, who argue furiously with one another (in footnotes). Indeed, de Selby is only part of O’Brien’s parody of scientific theories. There is also the policeman’s atomic theory. Indeed, smoke and mirrors, playing around with time, searching for something that may or may not be there and the loose connection between life and death make this a most original novel and it is sad that O’Brien was not able to publish it in his lifetime.

Publishing history

First published 1967 by MacGibbon & Kee