The Third Policeman
by Old Bone Machine
The Third Policeman is a novel not easily described. It is darkly comical and brilliantly nightmarish. Written by the Irish author Brian O’Nolan under the nome de plume Flann O’Brien, the novel concerns itself predominately with the grand themes of life and death, hell and eternity.
Curiously, the three policemen in the story have an obsession with bicycles. Also, and importantly, a murder is committed with a bicycle pump.
I am especially fond of the following passage, for in a perverse and absurd, yet heartwarming sense, it describes the solidarity I feel for the bicycle.
The Sergeant says:
“The gross and net result of it is that people who spent most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles.”
The narrator, whose name we never learn, replies:
“Gilhaney did not look like a bicycle”
“He had no back wheel on him and I did not think he had a front wheel either, although I did not give much attention to his front.”
The Sergeant continues:
“You cannot expect him to grow handlebars from his neck but I have seen him do more indescribable things than that.
“When a man lets things go so far that he is more than half a bicycle, you will not see him so much because he spends a lot of his time leaning with one elbow on walls or standing propped by one foot at kerbstones.”
The narrator and the Sergeant then watch a man pass by on a bicycle. The Sergeant indicates that the man is twenty-three per cent bicycle.
The Sergeant then says:
“The behaviour of a bicycle that has a high content of humanity is very cunning and entirely remarkable. You never see them moving by themselves but you meet them in the most least accountable places unexpectedly. Did you never see a bicycle leaning against the dresser of a warm kitchen when it is pouring outside?”
I suppose this in fact is the reason two of my bicycles lean against the wall of my bedroom (which I also share with my wife). My third bicycle watches the other two keenly and with some jealousy from the hallway outside the room.
Brian O’Nolan was an alcoholic who suffered from poor health for much of his adult life. He developed throat cancer yet died from a heart attack on April Fools Day 1966 (aged 54). The Third Policeman written in 1940 failed to find a publisher until after O’Nolan’s death in 1967.