Sceptical Cli-Fi (2) The Third Policeman

[Thanks to Wikipaedia for many details, since I don’t have the book to hand and haven’t read it for a while.]

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan) (published in 1967 but written in 1940) is probably the only humorous novel in history in which the narrator commits a brutal murder on the first page. And it gets funnier, and remains as funny to the very end, despite the fact that nothing, but absolutely nothing, else happens.

Our hero is an obsessive student of the philosophy of a certain de Selby, but lacks the money to purchase his complete works or publish his studies on the great man. (De Selby has demonstrated, among other things, how night is an illusion provoked by the accretion of black molecules in the air.) He therefore plots with an accomplice the murder and robbery of a local miser, a certain Mathers, in order to obtain the funds to further his ambition of bringing the great truths discovered by his philosopher hero to the world. However, he finds that while he was finishing off the victim with his spade, his accomplice had buried the loot in some unknown location until the coast should be clear for recuperating it. There follows a period of many months and years in which the narrator doesn’t let his accomplice out of his sight, going as far as sleeping in the same bed with him. Finally, the accomplice announces that the time is ripe for digging up the loot, which is buried under the floorboards of Mather’s house. But just as the narrator gets his hands on the box containing the money:

.. something happened.. as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye..”

The box had disappeared, and the narrator finds himself in conversation with the ghost of the long-dead Mathers. When he reveals to Mathers his dismay at not finding the money, the ghost suggests he enlist the aid of the officers at the nearby police station.

Leaving Mather’s house, he finds himself in an unfamiliar country. He follows the road to the police station, which appears from the outside to be two dimensional, like an advertising hoarding. However, once inside, he finds two policemen, one of whom says little, and spends much of his time with his elbows out leaning against the outside wall of the police station – because of the molecular theory, explains his colleague. Due to constant proximity with the seat of his bicycle, he is gradually turning into one.

The more talkative policeman spends most of his time taking mysterious “readings” and recording them in his notebook. He takes pride in exhibiting his inventions, including a method of collecting sound and transforming it into light, a box containing an infinite number of smaller boxes, the last few of which are so small that merely trying to imagine their existence would drive you mad, and a needle so sharp that it will prick your finger at a distance of several feet from the tip.

Meanwhile the body of Mathers is discovered, and the narrator, as the most convenient suspect, is told he is to be hanged. However, suddenly, dangerously high “readings” are noted by the two policemen, and, while they are thus distracted, our hero escapes (on a bicycle.)

In circumstances I won’t describe the narrator meets the third policeman, who reveals that he is responsible for the “readings,” which he makes up, and that the box which the narrator has so long sought is waiting for him at home. He sets out again, but finds himself once again at the police station, discussing once again questions of bicycles.

Imagine if you can a world in which the only representatives of authority are either obsessed with making meaningless measurements and spouting absurd theories, or gradually turning into inanimate objects before your eyes. Imagine, if you can, a world where the bicycle is central to every intelligent conversation.

Why, this is hell, nor are we out of it.

1 Comment

  1. You describe a surreal world. A sort of “Brazil” without the family friendly torturer, but filled with magical thinking and mystery. In other words, you peg the current status of the climate consensus and the rapidly spreading madness that enables it rather well.


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