The Third Policeman Revisited

By Frank O’Shea.

Flann O’Brien got into a huff when Longman refused to publish his follow-up to At Swim-Two-Birds. How could they suggest that someone who had been praised by Graham Greene and James Joyce would ever write anything that was less than a masterpiece? He put the manuscript on a sideboard, but told his friends outlandish stories of having lost it, including one version which had it blowing leaf by leaf out of the boot of his car somewhere in Donegal. After his death, his long-suffering wife managed to find a publisher and The Third Policeman saw the light of day and is now rightly regarded as one of the great novels of the last century.

Flann O'Brien Portrait

Flann O’Brien Portrait

Actually, when the critics praise the book, they tend use the word post-modernism and that’s a pity because it puts people off. I have been re-reading it, not for the first time, a reward I promised myself for having to deal with so much of the dreary prose that is modern fiction.

We never learn the name of the first-person narrator, only that he is an orphan and has murdered a man and buried his body in a bog and is now on a quest to locate his victim’s money box. He finds himself in a kind of hell, a place of weird inventions and people who make no sense. It has been suggested that the story is a kind of throwback to Manichaeism, the belief that the primal conflict between good and evil, between God and Lucifer, did not result in an outcome as clearcut as we have been led to believe.

But in this reading, I have been trying to concentrate on the way the author has dealt with what was in his day the new insights in physics. He creates the character of De Selby as half scientist, half philosopher and his characters deal with concepts like infinite regression and limiting sums; they talk about past and present and the mysteries of time, they deal with the uncertain interface between real and ephemeral. It is like quantum theory turned into poetry.

The Third Policeman Front Cover

The Third Policeman Front Cover

Surely there is the making of a doctoral thesis for one our modern young prodigies to look at Flann’s writings against the background of his contemporaries like Schroedinger and Heisenberg, Born and Einstein; after all, we know that he spent some time in Germany. What a pity he lived before sex selection and genetic engineering, Google Earth and GPS and drones. And, given his mollycule theory of the human-bicycle interface, what would he have made of Lance Armstrong and blood doping?

The story of The Third Policeman is in many ways secondary to the writing. You can only marvel at the zany creative mind that can imagine such things and then put them in prose that is itself exceedingly peculiar. You imagine that if you were familiar with Old Irish or Middle English or perhaps Icelandic or Sanskrit, you might find some echo in those languages:

The heat of the sun played incontrovertibly on every inch of me, the hardness of the road was uncompromising and the country changed slowly but surely as I made my way through it … The right-hand side was a greener country with a small turbulent river accompanying the road at a respectful distance and on the other side of it hills of rocky pasture stretching away into the distance up and down.

Anthony Cronin, in his book No Laughing Matter, says that the setting of the book is the Irish midlands: Hell is situated somewhere near Tullamore.

In a sense, Flann O’Brien himself is the tragedy of the story. After Longman rejected his manuscript, he confined his output to whatever would bring him drinking money. Even The Dalkey Archive is a reprise of some of the material in The Third Policeman and there is a suggestion that he was the author of some of the detective stories in Irish that were popular in the mid-century – Reics Carlo san Aifric is an example that comes to mind. Fortunately, his reputation was saved by The Irish Times and his Cruiskeen Lawn writings.

In these pages some months back, FD-G reviewed a biography of Tom Clarke, the Abu Bakr behind the 1916 Rising in Dublin. That book mentions in passing that one of the occasional visitors to Clarke’s tobacconist shop was the young Robert Smyllie. He was an enthusiastic Carsonite and would argue the toss with the older man, whom he often visited in search of funds ‘to save me from the Liffey, or at least from the pawnshops.’

It is an intriguing image: the young bohemian, a Trinity student, coming to the principal conspirator in the kingdom for a handout, and being graciously received. Go forward 20 years and he is now Bertie Smyllie, editor of the leading Unionist and Protestant paper in the country. Determined to make it appeal to a broader readership, he invites Flann O’Brien who has been pestering the paper with mildly libelous letters, to write a daily column at two guineas a time. Thus was Myles na gCopaleen born and his many brilliant creations – the Brother, Keats and Chapman, the Plain People of Ireland, the book-reading service.

In the years ahead, it would provide material that rarely fell below excellent. I like to wonder whether today’s Ireland owes a greater debt to the scheming Clarke or the roistering Smyllie.


Frank is a retired mathematics teacher who has recently moved from Canberra to Melbourne. You can find some of his other writing if you search under his name in The Age or one of the other Fairfax mastheads.

2 thoughts on “The Third Policeman Revisited

  1. Enough to persuade me to reread it. I always thought the editing should have been more stringent, but at its best the book has a haunting, hallucinatory quality. It does read, by the way, as though it had been translated from Irish. I am tempted, for my own pleasure, to translate it back.

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