Fundamental to the predicament of the narrator of The Third Policeman is his lack of name, of living parentage, of acknowledged public identity, and of means adequate to order his mystifying experiences. The fantastic qualities of his environment, and his marginal status as suspected murderer now unrecognized in his hometown, contribute to his profound alienation and growing anxiety. In a reversal of ordinary continuities, the conventional dimension of this character is his soul, Joe, who in this afterlife has a name and evident comfort in his surroundings. While Joe exhibits an unshaken confidence in common sense, the narrator desperately adopts implausible identities such as the definitive annotator of the de Selby codex, an Italian soprano, and a gallant suitor of an ardent bicycle. All of his identities are adopted as a matter of literary style, a function integral to his role as literary narrator, and all fail miserably as defenses against personal chaos.
The policemen suffer no such anxiety. They are unsurprised by incomprehensible developments, and they remain happy in their devotion to even more absurd preoccupations. Sergeant Pluck stands guard against local crime, ordinarily limited to the offense of riding a bicycle without a headlamp. Policeman MacCruiskeen is the contented inventor of nesting Chinese boxes (all the way down to molecular scale) and spears so keen that their points are invisible. Fox, the third to appear and the one essential to the narrator’s cyclic conclusion, wields a mysterious substance called omnium. In complete harmony with this nightmarish milieu, these policemen control their precinct by authoritatively charting meaningless statistics and spinning knobs on inexplicable but impressive contraptions.
The narrator, who as a child was sent to a fine boarding school after both of his parents died. At the age of sixteen, he becomes obsessed with the thought of a fictional charlatan, de Selby, who believes that most human experiences are illusory. After the narrator leaves school, he loses his left leg in an accident and returns home interested only in continuing his study of de Selby. He joins his dishonest caretaker, John Divney, in a crime to finance the publication of his definitive collation of all the interpretations of de Selby’s thought. After Divney murders him, the narrator, not realizing that he is dead, goes to a strange police barracks in search of the lockbox that contains their loot. Amid strange dialogues and disorienting experiences, he is accused by Sergeant Pluck of murder. He narrowly avoids being hanged and escapes on Pluck’s animate and gynecomorphic bicycle, toward which he develops amorous feelings. When he reaches his house, the narrator finds Divney and discovers that not three days but sixteen years have passed since he began his search for the box.
John Divney, the man hired to take care of the narrator’s farm and tavern while he is at boarding school. Divney is short but well built, with broad shoulders and thick arms. He is brown haired and roughly handsome, with a reassuring face and brooding, brown, and patient eyes. After the narrator returns home, he does not dismiss the lazy and unprincipled Divney, even after he realizes that Divney was stealing from him. Divney convinces the narrator to join him in a plot to rob and murder Mathers, who carries his cash box with him when he walks to the village. After the murder, Divney hides the box and will not tell the narrator where it is. After the narrator shadows him for several years, even to the point of sleeping in the same bed with him, Divney relents. He tells the narrator that he has hidden the strongbox under the floor in Mathers’ house, but he has actually planted a bomb there. When the narrator, who is killed by the bomb,...
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- Critical Essays