Fifty years after its posthumous publication, Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman remains both wildly funny and deeply unsettling. The novel’s genius (in both senses, characteristic quality and brilliance) is to use comedy not as relief from the uncanny but to create it. Something the unnamed narrator says might be applied to the work as a whole: “What he was doing was no longer wonderful but terrible.”

The final scenes reveal that the narrator is not in fact in the Irish countryside, where the book appears to take place, but is dead and in hell, though unaware of either fact. His first words make it clear why he’s there: “Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade.”

The novel’s genius is to use comedy not as...


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