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Literature / The Third Policeman

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"Is it about a bicycle?"

The Third Policeman is a darkly comic novel by Irish author Flann O'Brien, best known for his earlier work At Swim-Two-Birds. Written between 1939 and 1940, it didn't receive publication until 1967, after the author's death.

The story concerns an unnamed narrator and his tenant John Divney, both of whom are in dire need of funds (the narrator wishes to publish a commentary on the writings of a philosopher named de Selby; Divney wishes to get married). Divney proposes killing the local miser, Philip Mathers, and stealing his cash-box. However, while the narrator is in the process of retrieving the cash-box, he encounters the ghost of Mathers. Thus begins a series of surreal, disturbing and hilarious adventures as he attempts to recover the money.

Notably, the novel is considered one of the very first postmodernist works, despite being written long before the movement began in earnest.

Some trope titles below are spoilers in themselves.

The book contains examples of:

  • Absurdly Sharp Blade: See Sharpened to a Single Atom.
  • Alien Geometries: "Eternity" is nothing but this. The tiny police station situated inside the walls of Philip Mathers's house probably qualifies as well.
    • The first police station is an example of this too. When the narrator first sees it (and when he first sees it again later), it looks impossibly two-dimensional, like a roadside billboard; he has to get practically right in front of it to be able to tell that it's a real building.
    • Not to mention the underground bunker the policemen refer to as Eternity. The narrator opens a door on one side of the room he's sitting in and sees the other side of the room.
  • Amnesia Loop: The narrator doesn't realize his Ironic Hell is repeating over and over again.
  • And I Must Scream: The narrator is powerless to escape his Ironic Hell.
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Omnium is this, in effect.
  • Book Ends: A particularly unsettling example. As the narrator and John Divney approach the police barracks at the end of the book, the descriptions of the building and the behaviour of Sergeant Pluck are almost exactly the same as their earlier counterparts, yet the narrator does not seem to realize this. This is how the reader learns the narrator is inside an endlessly repeating Ironic Hell.
  • Brown Note: See Fictional Colour, amongst other examples.
  • Can't Take Anything with You: Sort of: when leaving "eternity", one has to be the same weight as when one entered.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: de Selby. He's incapable of distinguishing men from women, thinks that all motion is illusory (taking Zeno's paradoxes way too seriously) and that night is caused by pollution, distrusts houses, believes the earth to be sausage-shaped...
    • Note that a somewhat different version of de Selby actually appears in The Dalkey Archive. There, he hobnobs with St. Augustine, while pursuing a plan to save the world by destroying it.
  • Companion Cube: Sergeant Pluck is extremely distrustful of bicycles, worrying that they will become sentient. By the end of the novel the narrator has developed an extremely tender relationship with a seemingly female bicycle.
  • Contrived Coincidence: The carpenter building the gallows would just so happen to have a wooden leg, wouldn't he? Justified as the Ironic Hell makes liberal use of Hope Spots to frustrate the narrator.
  • Dead All Along: The narrator; while trying to retrieve Mathers's cashbox, he encountered a bomb planted by John Divney which killed him instantly.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Women barely feature in the book, even the narrator's mother is not much more than a vague memory for him. On the other hand, look at the relationships the men in the book have with their bicycles...
  • Dying Dream: Sort of. The protagonist is forced to walk through the same nightmarish dreamscape over and over as punishment for killing a man for his money. On literally the penultimate page, his accomplice joins him.
  • Fictional Colour: One of the bizarre things the protagonist encounters is a paint of an unknown color that drives those that see it mad.
  • Fictional Document: The various works of the philosopher de Selby, along with other philosophers' commentaries upon them.
  • Footnote Fever: Long passages are devoted to the narrator discussing the various ideas espoused by the philosopher de Selby, his life, the interpretations of his ideas by other philosophers and their lives. While they gradually stray further and further away from any relevance to the main plot, they feature some of the most hilarious passages in the book.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: Unintentionally. When Sergeant Pluck's superior discovers that Philip Mathers has been killed, he is outraged that Pluck has yet to arrest a suspect. In an effort to mollify him, Sergeant Pluck assures his superior that the narrator is the perpetrator (without realizing he is), and promptly commences making arrangements for his hanging.
  • Gainax Ending: Inverted. Although the ending is open to interpretation and it's certainly weird in itself, if you view it the way the author did (that the narrator is in hell) then it's the only thing in the book that does make sense.
  • Here We Go Again!: "Is it about a bicycle?"
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Everyone in their neighborhood thinks Divney and the narrator are this trope, but it's subverted: they're actually getting quite sick of each other, but the narrator mistrusts Divney and won't let him go off by himself to retrieve the money from where he cached it.
  • Hope Spot: the second half of the book features a protracted series of examples for the narrator.
  • Informed Ability: Played for laughs with de Selby, whom the narrator and every other character seems convinced is a legendary genius. Most mentions of de Selby acknowledge his "regrettable lapses" (i.e. thinking that the Earth is shaped like a sausage and night is an accretion of "black air" caused by pollution), but still insist that his philosophy overall was brilliant... even though from what the reader can tell, those "lapses" pretty much are de Selby's philosophy.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Much of the book runs on this, with the policemen giving long exegeses on things that are fundamentally nonsensical, absurd, or outright impossible.
  • Ironic Hell: It's revealed at the end that everything the narrator has experienced since going back to Philip Mathers's house has been a hell in which he is doomed to experience horrifying, surreal events over and over again. Even worse, he has no awareness that this is happening repeatedly.
  • Karma Houdini: Subverted — Divney gets away scot-free with killing the narrator and stealing Mathers' money. However, the ending makes it clear that, in death, he will experience exactly the same fate as the narrator.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: de Selby, and the philosophers who analyze him, are largely steeped in this. de Selby's ideas are complete nonsense, while the people who analyze him are clearly intelligent but would rather waste their lives analyzing de Selby.
  • MacGuffin: The cashbox, at least to begin with.
  • Mood Whiplash: All over the place. This book will have you laughing your head off one minute and feeling weirdly unsettled the next.
  • No Name Given: The narrator. Curiously, the narrator himself forgets his own name. Once he starts having conversations with his soul he decides to call his soul Joe, but exactly what relationship they have, or how he's able to do that, is not made clear.
  • Noodle Incident: The enigmatic circumstances around the narrator breaking his leg — "if you like, it was broken for me".
  • Northern Ireland: The novel's setting (initially, at any rate).
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The police force. Pluck tells the narrator that since the narrator has no name, he therefore cannot exist, and it would be futile for Pluck to file a police report on the missing American watch of a non-existent person. However, later on the fact that the narrator supposedly does not exist comes in handy, as Pluck can execute the narrator with impunity in order to appease his superior, without the execution having officially taken place (thus, no one will be able to investigate whether the narrator was in fact innocent or guilty of the crime he was accused of, as no records of it will exist).
  • Postmodernism: It's been called "the first great masterpiece" of the genre, despite being written long before the genre proper is traditionally said to have emerged.
  • Reality Warper: Anyone in possession of sufficient quantities of omnium becomes one of these.
  • Reread Bonus: Once you've read the ending, the next time you read it it's obvious what happens at the moment the narrator finds the cashbox - it blows up and he's killed.
  • Sharpened to a Single Atom: Policeman MacCruiskeen has honed a spear to such a sharp point that if you were to prick yourself with it, your finger would begin to bleed about two inches before the point appeared to reach your finger. In fact, when your finger starts to bleed, the spear point had penetrated your skin two inches ago, but was so thin it slipped between the atoms of your finger without causing any damage.
  • Show Within a Show: The writings of de Selby and his commentators.
  • A Simple Plan: The narrator's and John Divney's plan is actually a subversion of this. Initially, it looks like Divney has betrayed the narrator and stolen the money, or that some third party has stolen it from both of them. However, at the end it is revealed that Divney's plan was to steal the money and kill the narrator, and both elements went off without a hitch. Sixteen years later, Divney still hasn't been caught.
  • Some Call Me "Tim": The narrator's immaterial, undying soul is called — Joe.
  • Stealth Pun: See Village Bicycle.
  • Surreal Horror: Some of the weird things in this book are so off-the-wall you have to laugh. Others? Not so much.
  • Surreal Humour: One of the best jokes in this book is about a policeman stealing bicycles because of his severe concern that they will become sentient and demand being allowed to vote in local elections. It's that kind of book.
  • Word Salad Philosophy: de Selby's writings come across as such.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: Two examples: time does not pass at all inside "eternity", so one can enter and come out exactly the same age one was when one entered. Additionally, the narrator only seems to spend a couple of days searching for the cashbox, but when he returns to his house John Divney tells him sixteen years have passed.