Thursday, November 16, 2023

The Third Policeman

 The Third Policeman (1967) Flann O'Brien (Brian O'Nolan/Brian Ó Nualláin)

O'Brien's novel, originally written in 1939/1940, did not find a publisher until 30 years later. It is a novel about crime and punishment told with a combination of stream of consciousness, bizarre humor, and Alice in Wonderland dream-like qualities. Our unnamed narrator opens by describing how he and his friend John Divney killed old man Mathers for the fortune they believed he had in a black cash box. The rest of the story tells us what happened when it came time to divvy up the booty and what happened to our narrator afterward.

"It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter."

For anyone reading the story unawares (don't read the intro! see complaint below), it definitely is a conundrum. Making sense of the events that follow the narrator's return to Mathers' house is going to take all of the reader's attention. There are policemen and one-legged men and bicycles. The policemen are recording measurements of a mysterious nature. And when they're not doing that they are hunting for stolen bicycles or stolen bits of bicycles such as lamps or seats or wheels or pumps. The policemen don't seem to know that Mathers is dead. They don't seem concerned about where our narrator came from or what his business is--unless it has to do with a bicycle. And does our narrator ever find the missing cash box?

I have to start my take on the book with a complaint. I hate introductions that spoil the story. I don't know why Denis Donoghue thought he needed to tell the world what was going on in this bizarre little story--but I certainly wasn't pleased. One of the major points of O'Brien's narrative is that the reader is supposed to be wondering the whole time what in the world is going on. Where is our unnamed protagonist? Why are there policemen? What's the deal with the bicycles? Why is everything so weird? When you know the hook from the get-go, you just want to cut through all the weirdness (or at least I did). In fact, you kind of wonder why you're bothering to read this at all. Oh--and by the way--the spoiler is not the first line quoted below nor in my description of the novel above. Since O'Brien tells us upfront that our narrator killed someone, it is obvious that that is not the big mystery to be solved. 

Overall, this is an interesting book and with a unique method for comment on crime and its just punishment. We also take a look at the nature of reality, death, and what comes next. ★★ (probably would have been higher if I'd skipped the intro and experienced the book as it should have been experienced).

First line: Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in 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.

Last line: "Is it about a bicycle?" he asked.


Deaths =  5 (three natural; one hit on head; one blown up)

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