76. The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien (written 1939-40, published 1967)

Back in the early 80s I had a very troublesome boyfriend who was absolutely mad about Flann O’Brien. I dutifully read At Swim-two-Birds in an attempt to secure his favours, and I pretended to like it. It wasn’t until I read The Third Policeman that I could honestly agree that O’Brien was a genius. Basically, like many of the books on this list, it’s a comedy – the delusional narrator is writing a treatise on the obscure philosopher Hubert de Selby, during the course of which he befriends a charming villain called Divney and becomes involved in a slapstick murder plot. On top of that slim story there’s layer after layer of inventive strangeness, to the point that the novel becomes a surreal inquisition of itself, the nature of fiction, the reality or otherwise of death. Sounds ghastly? It should be, but for the fact that O’Brien has his tongue firmly in his cheek and laughs at his most pompous passages even as he writes them. There are plenty of lolz, and the mother of all unexpected twists at the end, one that’s been endlessly ripped off in subsequent books and films. Does anyone read Flann any more? And what became of that boyfriend, I wonder?

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Filed under My top 100 novels

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