Since reading some of the older classics I’ve gotten into the habit of perusing the introduction/translator’s note/foreword prior to starting the story itself. Sometimes it has insights about the story I wouldn’t necessarily notice myself, along with pertinent details about the author’s life and worldwide events. The Third Policeman’s introduction had all of these. Plus a spoiler. A major one. It didn’t exactly ruin the book for me – I still enjoyed it – but reading the whole strange story already knowing the main character’s secret certainly scrubbed off a layer of enjoyment. So for this edition I advise you to skip the introduction. Reading it will only end in sadness.
O’Brien writes strangely. He seems to order the words in his sentences somehow other than what I’ve come to expect from an
English Irish author. Take this sentence from page 24: “His hand had crept out across the small table at his side to turn up very slowly an oil-lamp which was standing on it.” Is it just me, or do most people phrase a sentence like that more succinctly? Put the actions and adverbs in different places? Two more examples: ” ‘That is a handsome desideratum,’ said Martin Finnucane. ‘What way will you bring it about or mature its mutandum and bring it ultimately to passable factivity?’ “(48) “The trees by the road were rank and stunted and moved their stark leafless branches very dismally in the wind.” (197) The Third Policeman is chock full of these sorts of unusually constructed sentences, bizarre occurrences, and fantastical characters. Pages of tiny footnotes about an imaginary philosopher and writer named de Selby, whom the narrator is obsessively studying. After chapter one, there is no part of this novel that is not strange and fantastic. Chapter one is pretty normal.
Because this book was written back in the 60’s, some of the terminology used for races and religions is sometimes offensive. It doesn’t crop up often or play a serious part in the story, but it is there. So be aware if you’re sensitive to that kind of language. If you’re up for macabre weirdness, add this book to your reading pile. It’s not even 200 pages, so it won’t take you long and when you’re done you can have Flann O’Brien bragging rights.