The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Full-disclosure: I’m a huge fan of stories involving mind-bending, surrealist worlds, of which this is a masterful example. I also find dry, absurdist humor of the Monty Python variety to be hilarious, and this book has loads of it. In short, for me this book was a match made in heaven.
The opening of the story is normal enough. There are two characters who seem to be inseparable friends, but – in fact – they are inseparable because they conspired to murder an old man in order to steal his money. One man, the protagonist, fears that the other man (who knows where the loot was stashed) will make off with the money, leaving our lead high and dry. After the two have left time for the heat to die down, the partner (who knows where the money is) suggests they go to retrieve and split it. Recognizing that the protagonist doesn’t trust him, the partner suggests that the protagonist go into the old man’s abandoned house to extract the lock-box that they left behind.
The protagonist agrees, and once he enters the old man’s house, we know that he has tumbled down some sort of rabbit-hole. The reader doesn’t learn what the cause of this shift into a dreamlike world is until near the end of the story, but it’s quite obvious that this isn’t the real world. “Dreamlike” is an apt descriptor. While this bizarre world clearly builds on the world as he knows it, it also defies the logic of the world as we know it. Furthermore, as when in a dream, the protagonist doesn’t recognize the strange logic of how this world operates, nor does he truly recognize how strange people’s behavior is.
The strangeness begins with the protagonist’s discovery of the man he killed – apparently living – in the house. The conversation gets off to an odd start when the protagonist discovers that the old man will only answer yes / no questions in the negative, and so he’s been giving false information about half the time. Their meandering conversation shifts onto the titular “policemen,” who – while vaguely authority figures – are involved in all manner of inexplicable activities from making garments that indicate the length of a person’s lifespan to taking measurements of unexplained quantities for unexplained purposes (or – perhaps – no purpose.) The protagonist reasons that since these policemen seem to know so much, they will surely be able to tell him where the lock-box is located.
As I said, the book contains a lot of absurdist humor. Some of this derives from the policemen’s obsession with bicycles. When the protagonist arrives, they just assume he is there about a stolen bicycle (or bicycle parts) and – no matter how he tries to convince them otherwise – they continue to answer his inquiries about other matters in terms of bicycles. (There’s also a bit of an unexplained obsession with pancakes, as when a difficult problem is called an “insoluble pancake.”)
As I say, I love this kind of book, and I thought this is a particularly skillful and amusing example of the genre. I’d highly recommend it for readers who like their fiction trippy. Despite huge doses of surrealism, it’s easy to follow what is going on in the story, and to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary.
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