An insoluble pancake: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Verdict 5 stars

The Third Policeman by Flann O’ Brien is a brilliantly dark tale of one man’s mysterious quest to find a black box. Now, we don’t know the man’s name, the man himself doesn’t even know his name (it certainly isn’t Hugh Murray or Kurt Freund or Legs O’Hagan for example), but we do know the name of his soul – Joe. We’re also accompanied in the footnotes by de Selby, a fictional philosopher for whom the narrator committed his greatest sin – murder. The novel is at once hilarious and deeply unsettling, taking the reader on a journey through crime and punishment and everything in between by the medium of three eccentric policemen and their bicycles. In a world where wooden legged men enjoy special protection from Martin Finnucane and his brotherhood of one-legged men, eternity is to be found up a country lane and down a lift, and the greatest crime known to man is the theft of a bicycle we have no choice to accept the irrational and ridiculous as normal.

“Is it about a bicycle?”

The story starts with the narrator and his companion (Divney) making the decision to murder Old Mathers, a hermit and miser, in order to rob him of his fortune. Divney’s motivation is that he wants to take a wife and our narrator to publish his definitive “De Selby Index”, which would be his greatest gift to the world. Armed with their weapons of choice – a spade and an iron bicycle pump since you asked – they ambush Old Mathers on his way to the post office one morning and commit the deadly deed. What happens thereafter is really an insoluble pancake, for Divney, Old Mathers and the black box all disappear and our narrator and his soul, Joe, are left with no choice but to set off on their futile quest. De Selby’s Atomic Theory plays a large part of the story (hint: don’t spend too long sitting on your bicycle if you don’t want your bike deriving too much pleasure from it).

“This is very wholesome stuff. Every word a sermon in itself.”

I enjoyed every page of this novel (in fact I have read it several times), getting lost in the absurdity of O’Brien’s mind and navigating through this strange purgatory in the Irish countryside. At 206 pages, it is a short novel but one that will leave you at the end questioning your very existence. In its 206 pages it challenges religion, science, mortality and morality, friendship and loyalty – that is a lot for such a short novel, but O’Brien achieves it beautifully. For me, this is the absolute no.1 unsung hero in Irish literature and while it is not for everyone (a recent read in my book club split us 50:50) I challenge you to pick this up and I would love to hear your thoughts. If you have already read The Third Policeman, please tell me your comments below. In the meantime I leave you with my The Third Policeman Literary Mixtape.

And remember: “never apply your front brake first”.

The Third Policeman Literary Mixtape

Originally published: 1967
Author: Flann O’Brien
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism

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