The Third Policeman

The Third Policeman

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by Flann O'Brien

Introduction by Denis Donoghue

The Third Policeman is Flann O'Brien's brilliantly dark comic novel about the nature of time, death, and existence.

Told by a narrator who has committed a botched robbery and brutal murder, the novel follows him and his adventures in a two-dimensional police station where, through the theories of the scientist/philosopher de Selby, he is introduced to "Atomic Theory" and its relation to bicycles, the existence of eternity (which turns out to be just down the road), and de Selby's view that the earth is not round but "sausage-shaped." With the help of his newly found soul named "Joe," he grapples with the riddles and contradictions that three eccentric policeman present to him.

The last of O’Brien’s novels to be published, The Third Policeman joins O’Brien’s other fiction (At Swim-Two-Birds, The Poor Mouth, The Hard Life, and The Dalkey Archive) to ensure his place, along with James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, as one of Ireland’s great comic geniuses.

Biographical Note

Flann O'Brien, whose real name was Brian O'Nolan, also wrote under the pen name of Myles na Gopaleen. He was born in 1911 in County Tyrone. A resident of Dublin, he graduated from University College after a brilliant career as a student (editing a magazine called Blather) and joined the Civil Service, in which he eventually attained a senior position. He wrote throughout his life, which ended in Dublin on April 1, 1966. His other novels include The Dalkey Archive, The Third Policeman, The Hard Life, and The Poor Mouth, all available from Dalkey Archive Press. Also available are three volumes of his newspaper columns: The Best of Myles, Further Cuttings from Cruiskeen Lawn, and At War.

Denis Donoghue is University Professor and Henry James Chair of English and American Letters at New York University.


"By no means recently published, Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman will, nevertheless, be perpetually new. The literary equivalent of a Tesla invention, The Third Policeman is an astonishingly great book that is so intricate, so improbably effective, that one cannot tell, merely by looking, what makes it tick. The story is a strange dream-journey that at times is so substantial that the reader will find himself double-checking the thickness of the book itself, amazed that the whole thing fits in so slim a volume.... [The Third Policeman] "must not be allowed to be forgotten. More images are painted in its 200 pages than in the massive Pulitzer contenders of today, more fantasy and dream than in a million pages of Tolkien or Rowling. Reading this book will actually improve your imagination, your speech, your intelligence..." —Bookslut

"I first discovered The Third Policeman when someone—I don't remember who—recommended it to me, claiming it was the funniest book ever written, bar none. I would agree, if to the adjective "funniest" was added the conjunction and adjective "and scariest." I had never read anything quite like it, and now, although I have read books like it, I have never read anything of its kind (which is what? a Menippean satire?) to surpass it." —Charles Baxter, author of Saul and Patsy, on NPR

“If we don’t cherish the work of Flann O’Brien we are stupid fools who don’t deserve to have great men. Flann O'Brien is a very great man.” —Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange

"This is truly a remarkable piece of work that has been likened to Alice in Wonderland but to my mind has more in common with the works of such eccentric European writers as Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, Bruno Schulz, Witold Gombrowicz and Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz. . . . Who knows what he might have achieved had The Third Policeman seen the light of day in his own lifetime? The brilliance of Flann O’Brien lies not just in the wild invention he displays but the lengths he is prepared to go to." —Joe Sommerlan, The Statesman