The Third Policeman Summary
by Brian O’Nolan

Start Your Free Trial

The Third Policeman Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Download The Third Policeman Study Guide

Subscribe Now

As a child, the unnamed narrator of The Third Policeman was sent to boarding school on the death of both his parents. As a young adult, he returns to his hometown, where the meager family farm has been suspiciously mismanaged by a lazy bachelor named John Divney. The fantastic events of the novel, and the narrator’s own relation of his story, begin with the murder of a wealthy old man, Phillip Mathers, by the narrator in the company, and at the instigation, of Divney. While the narrator buries the corpse, Divney hides the cash box they sought. Months later, the pair return to recover the money, at which point the narrator, betrayed by Divney, becomes aware of eerie changes in his surroundings and in his perception of them.

For what appears to be three days, the narrator seeks Divney and the cash box, protests his innocence under police interrogation, and escapes from the police as they plan a scaffold for his execution. Throughout these episodes, the narrator endures a comical but profound disorientation of ordinary experience: Buildings appear to be two-dimensional, bicycles seem alive, and the sun apparently rises and sets in the east. He negotiates these baffling phenomena by adducing quite seriously the baroque and ludicrous metaphysics of a fictional philosopher named de Selby. The absurdity of the narrator’s scholarship is matched by that of the policemen, who are doctrinaire concerning theories about the source of all sickness in teeth, colors in winds, night as a material substance, and the slow but inexorable molecular exchange between bicycles and the persons riding them.

At last, aided by the third policeman, Fox, the narrator locates Divney and is startled to find him now the father of an adolescent son. In a fatal apoplectic fit at the...

(The entire section is 442 words.)