Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

The Lost Book Club: The Third Policeman

There are some books that I think exist primarily to torment the reader, and Flan O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is just such a book. It’s not bad. In fact, I kind of like it, but I did not enjoy the experience of reading it.

The narrator has committed a brutal murder in order to steal money that will allow him to write the definitive word on the philosopher De Selby, whose theories are argued back in forth by various scholars in the extensive footnotes that occur in the novel creating a sort of dual storyline. De Selby, of course, is a quack whose theories make no sense.

The narrator soon finds himself in a two dimensional police station where Officer MacKruiskeen and Sgt. Pluck spark in grafty cibberish about the connections between people and bicycles, the nature of time, omnium – a sort of proto string theory (the book was written in the 1930s and published posthumously in 1967), all the while discussing mysterious readings and generally making very little sense. All accompanied by footnotes relating to De Selby, who is incidentally also a fictional character.

It’s really torturous to plod through it all, but then that’s the point. The narrator is dead and he is in Hell. He is given plenty of false hope, lots of confusion and circular reasoning (the book was originally titled Hell Goes Round and Round), and ultimately has to repeat everything that happened to him without any knowledge of having already experienced it.

As his soul, Joe, puts it:

Hell goes round and round. In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable.

Which pretty accurately describes The Third Policeman. I suppose it’s one of those books that I like the idea of more so than the actual experience.

On to Lost. This book appears pretty important to figuring out the Lost mysteries (from Wikipedia):

The Third Policeman is seen when Desmond is packing before fleeing the underground bunker in “Orientation.” Craig Wright, who co-wrote the episode, told the Chicago Tribune that, “Whoever goes out and buys the book will have a lot more ammunition in their back pocket as they theorize about the show. They will have a lot more to speculate about and, no small thing, they will have read a really great book.”

So here’s my back-pocket theorizing. The book, like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” tells the story of a character who is dead, but doesn’t realize it yet. Like Bad Twin and The Turn of the Screw it focuses on the between states of human existence that is the fine edge between life and after-life.

Now the theory that the characters on Lost are all dead and don’t know it has been discredited by the show’s writers, but the idea of paying for past sins, and a chance at redemption certainly are reinforced by these books.

The other connection is the hatch. The Third Policeman appears in the episode “Orientation” in which the characters learn about the hatch and the need to enter the numbers or Bad Things will happen. This is very similar to the constant readings the two policeman constantly take. When the readings get out of balance, they must go to Eternity, an underground chamber that, much like the hatch, is full of strange machines and useful supplies. While in Eternity the policeman must readjust the settings (none of this is ever explained) to keep things running smoothly.

A central question in Lost‘s second season was: Do the numbers entered into the computer really mean anything, and does it really matter? The answer provided in The Third Policeman is that it’s all a sham put on by the third policeman – a truly devilish character -  in order to keep the other two busy. Sound like the Hanso Foundation?

Of course, by the end of season two, we know that not entering the sequence does something. Or at least appears to. As to what it does, we’ll have to wait and see.

For more of my Lost book posts, please visit The Lost Book Club.


  1. Ack! I’m almost to halfway on the watching of the second season. Must…find…out…what…not…pushing…button…does!

  2. Hang in there. You’ll find out. Well, sort of.

  3. Just a follow-up note – Flann O’Brien’s last published “novel”, the Dalkey Archive, actually contains De Selby as a character – the book, as I remember it (it’s been years now, but I want to go back and read it again soon) is almost as enigmatic, tortuous and delightful as The Third Policeman, but much shorter. And I’m delighted that Americans are (re)discovering one of modern Ireland’s most brilliant writers.

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