The most important thing I can tell you about Flann O’Brien is: you should not read the introduction to “The Complete Novels” until after you’ve read the complete novels. Perhaps the introducer believed he was writing an afterword, or perhaps he believes he lives in a surreal utopia where everyone has read Flann O’Brien. Regardless, he drops spoilers like race cars during a bolt shortage, including a huge one that will change the way you read “The Third Policeman.” Fortunately, I long ago developed a suspicion of introductions and always save them for last, so it was with a self-satisfied smirk, wagged finger of admonishment and chest-puffed entreaty of “don’t be a monster that spoils stuff” that I greeted the introducer’s ghastly act of revealing the end of the “The Third Policeman,” where the reader should discover for themselves that [spoiler removed by editor].
Flann O’Brien, much like Batman or a rapper, has more than one name. His realest name is Brian O’Nolan, and, in addition to Flann, he also wrote as Myles na gCopaleen, which I presume is the result of several typos and an urge to be the most inscrutable superhero ever. Unlike my previous recommendations whose recommending came at least partially in the service of bribing them to be my friends, any relationship with O’Brien would be awkward and one-sided as the man died on April Fools’ Day in 1966. (Which, if one has to die, must be the best day to do so. Think of the incredulous responses when his friends and loved ones were notified!)
“The Third Policeman” begins with the narrator confessing to murder. From there it is a whirlwind consisting of a plot to obtain the deceased’s fortune; asides concerning the ludicrous theories of the philosopher de Selby (whom the narrator is obsessed with and had been planning to write a book on), such as his belief that night is an illusion caused by an accretion of black gases, that the earth is sausage-shaped and that with a large enough series of mirrors one is capable of seeing into the past; and absurd policemen whose fixations on bicycles, high-fallutin’ rhetoric and incomprehensible mathematics provide much of the fuel for this spectacular comedy.
There’s also some spectacular horror. In addition to murder, there is a conversation with a ghost, a journey into a surreal landscape where a police station looks two-dimensional, as if “it was painted on the sky,” an alliance with an army of one-legged men, some incomprehensible mathematics and a bicycle painted a color that drives anyone who sees it mad. There’s a chest of drawers so flawless that the only thing the policeman found worthy of putting in it was a smaller replica, which presented the same problem, which meant it must contain a smaller replica and so on until there’s a chest so small it can’t be spotted with a magnifying glass. This is a rare book that is creepy, hilarious and uncanny within the same sentence. Also, the ending is neat.