If ever there was a case of me reading a book with completely the wrong idea of what I was getting into, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman would be it.

While described as a comedy in most synopses, this Irish novel from 1939 (though only published in 1967) was initially far closer to horrifying than humorous as I got about a third into it.

Try as I might, I found it difficult to see the lighter side of beating a frail old man to death for the purpose of relieving him of his money. The novel, in fact, seemed so dark that I checked several times to make sure I hadn’t picked up the wrong book or misread the synopsis.

It starts off innocently enough. The orphaned narrator discovers the work of De Selby, a fictionalised philosopher, at boarding school, and dedicates much of his time to studying him. When he returns to rural Ireland, he reunites with John Divney, who has been the caretaker for the narrator’s family farm and pub.

The narrator dreams of publishing a book on De Selby, while Divney continues maintaining the businesses. Both, however, soon realise that they are in dire need of money, and hatch a diabolical plan to procure some.

But just as one is lulled into a sense of confused acceptance, that The Third Policeman might possibly be some sort of crime novel, it takes a decided turn for the odd and out of the ordinary.

A character very improbably returns from death. The unnamed narrator begins talking to his own soul, whom he christens “Joe”. We hear about and later meet a group of rather unusual policemen, part of whose job seems to be to distribute mysterious gowns that reflect a person’s mortality. They also seem unusually obsessed with bicycles. Characters start speaking not so much in actual dialogue but what seem like non sequiturs. And sprinkled throughout are De Selby’s increasingly ludicrous philosophical musings.

str2_booked2108_sharmilla_2It is somewhere around this point that one begins to see how O’Brien has skilfully laid the groundwork for what seemed like a rather predictable story to rapidly evolve into surrealist satire, or perhaps a postmodernist critique of both storytelling and philosophy.

It was also around this time that the book began reminding me of one of my favourite film subgenres: the comedy mind**** movie. Movies like Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, and Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s Cabin In The Woods – where humour and decidedly dark happenings intertwine to tell a story that both plays with much larger themes and messes with your perception of reality.

O’Brien apparently counted James Joyce and Franz Kafka amongst his influences, and this is quite obvious in the novel. While O’Brien’s narrative and writing style is very different from his fellow Irishman Joyce, there is a distinct inclination towards bleak humour that seems to unite them. It isn’t difficult, meanwhile, to see strains of Kafka’s disturbing blend of realism and fantasy throughout O’Brien’s work.

As the book winds towards a wholly unexpected ending, the full genius of O’Brien’s writing becomes apparent, much like those aforementioned movies where you spend most of the time wondering what the heck is going on, before being completely blown away once the big picture becomes clear.

In fact, I now have a great desire to see Jonze, Whedon or the Coen brothers adapt The Third Policeman for the big screen.


Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.