If you want to read about a fascinating life, go check out Flann O’Brien’s Wikipedia page. Highly entertaining stuff, to say the least.
O’Brien wrote The Third Policeman in 1940 but it was not published until 1967, several years after his death. That is a shame, because The Third Policeman is a brilliant work of literature. Judging by the rejection notices O’Brien received from publishers, the book was simply too creative for audiences. Too creative is certainly a problem if an author is trying to make some money, but if O’Brien was concerned with his books living on in posterity, too creative is a good problem to have.
Not only is The Third Policeman a fantastic book, it is one of the more provocative books in the entire Literature of Lost series. We first see it in the season two episode Man of Science, Man of Faith – it is the book Desmond is reading when the Oceanic survivors first enter the Hatch. The camera later pans in on it when Desmond races from the Hatch after the computer is shot, just so we know which book is being emphasized.
The book begins with an unnamed, one-legged narrator describing his life to date. He was born on a farm in Ireland, but never really had much use for rural life. Instead, he went to a university and now spends his days compiling a complete index of all the works of an amateur psychologist/sociologist/scientist/all-around eccentric named de Selby. De Selby’s teachings provide the biggest laughs throughout the book, as it turns out his ideas are ridiculously insane (e.g. that the world is shaped like a sausage and that darkness is really just volcanic dust that settles on the world every night).
Both of the narrator’s parents die before the narrator is ready to return to the farm, so he hires a man named John Divney to tend to the farm. Divney is a bit of a bum and barely takes care of the land. Even after the narrator returns, Divney hangs around for months and proposes various get rich quick schemes. One of these schemes involved robbing old man Mathers, a rich fellow who lived down the street but never seemed to have any friends.
The plan goes awry and Divney and the narrator end up killing Mathers. They bury him, but start to freak out when they realize that people will suspect them of murder if they suddenly have money. Divney decides to take his money box and bury it, and the two will return later to pick it up once things have calmed down. Because Divney is a shady character, the narrator doesn’t trust him to get the box on his own. He keeps Divney in his sight for three full years and the two even share the same bed. Town outsiders think they are the best of friends, but they secretly hate each other.
After three years, Divney finally tells the narrator that the box is hidden underneath the floorboards in Mathers’ own house. Satisfied with this answer, the narrator goes in alone and finds the box right where Divney said it would be. But just as he reaches for the box, the temperature and lighting changed in a way the narrator can’t quite describe. The black box disappears.
Then things get weird.
The narrator looks up and sees that Mathers is sitting in his chair. Horrified, the narrator proceeds to have a “conversation” with Mathers. Conversation gets quotation marks because Mathers answers nearly every question “no.” The narrator also starts hearing a voice from his soul, which he names Joe to help identify his own thoughts. Eventually, Mathers sends the narrator to a police station, where he can find out where his box went.
Along the way, the narrator meets a fellow one-legged man named Martin who promises that his band of one-legged pirates will help the narrator whenever he needs it. One-legged men have to stick together, after all.
A couple more miles down the road is the police station. Inside, the narrator meets Sgt. Pluck and Policeman MacCruiskeen. Sgt. Pluck asks the narrator if this is about a bicycle. It is not – the narrator makes up a story about his American gold watch getting stolen. Sgt. Pluck quickly dismisses the story because it makes no sense to him why someone would steal a watch when they could steal a bicycle. Hard to argue with that logic.
The two police officers are obsessed with bicycles and most of their conversations read like post-modernist Abbott and Costello routines. They take the narrator to see various, strange things: boxes that MacCruiskeen carves that are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye; a room that the policemen call “eternity” because nobody ever ages in it; and a “magic box” in the same eternal room in which you can envision anything and it will appear. The policemen also inform him that Mathers’ box didn’t contain money at all – it contained omnium, the essential part of all life.
Eventually, Mathers is found lying in a ditch and the narrator is sentenced to death for murder. He is saved at the last second by crucial readings that went wrong in the eternity room. The policemen leave and the narrator escapes.
On his way home, he passes by the Mathers house. He investigates a light on in the house and discovers the third policeman, Policeman Fox. It turns out that Fox is a bit of a vagabond who takes great pleasure in artificially changing the readings to mess with the two other policemen.
After another weird conversation, the narrator finally makes it home. When he arrives, he is stunned to find out that Divney is an older man, with a child and a wife. Divney is terrified of the narrator but no one else seems to see him.
Divney then shouts that the narrator is supposed to be dead. He had planted a bomb inside the box all along and watched the house explode. Sixteen years have passed, even though the narrator had only experienced three days.
The narrator leaves again, but Divney quickly catches up with him. The two enter the police station together and Sgt. Pluck asks if this is about a bicycle. The two are doomed to repeat the whole sequence again.
Season two was apparently the season in which the Lost creators sought to mess with viewers. Like An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, this was yet another work in which the main character was dead all along. In this book, the narrator is forced to repeat this sort of nonsensical purgatory over and over, likely as punishment for killing Mathers.
At this point in Lost, the purgatory theory was probably the most prevalent theory among Lost fans. Clearly this book was included to play on those fans. In the first season and into the early part of the second season, we learned a lot about the various sins that the Oceanic survivors committed. Just like the narrator was punished for killing Mathers, we certainly wondered if these people were being punished for their misdeeds.
That didn’t turn out to be the case, although shades of The Third Policeman purgatory pop up in the season six flash-sideways. In the narrator’s purgatory, the world is ostensibly still the same…but something is clearly off. That was how the flash-sideways felt in season six – it seemed kinda close to the same, but something was clearly off with the whole sideways world. In both “purgatories,” things seemed moderately pleasant, yet still seemed a bit hollow, as if the worlds were somehow fake.
The Third Policeman also touches on the timeline theme. In the book, only three days pass as it appears to the narrator. In reality, sixteen years passed. In Lost, many toyed with the idea that the entire events of the Island took place in just a few seconds before the passenger’s deaths. That didn’t turn out to be the case (or so we think), but Lost did explore time travel and the “time is not what it seems” later in seasons four and five.
Then we get to the idea of the magic box, which shows up almost verbatim in the season three episode The Man from Tallahassee. In that episode, Ben informs John Locke that he brought Anthony Cooper there in his own magic box – anything he thought of would appear in it. Just like in The Third Policeman, Locke could not take Anthony Cooper with him, but he did bring him to the Island merely by thinking about him (or so Ben has us believe).
Finally, the policemen’s job with their readings sounds a bit like Desmond’s own job of pressing 4 8 15 16 23 42 every 108 minutes. In The Third Policeman, Pluck and MacCruiskeen make it a habit of checking their readings of the eternal room every day. It turned out that none of Pluck and MacCruiskeen’s readings were necessary – it was only Policeman Fox messing with them by manually changing the numbers and then hiding in his own private police station.
Certainly Desmond read about that in the Hatch and wondered about his own work. As he himself admits, he wondered every single day he was in the Hatch if pushing the button was necessary. Reading books like The Third Policeman certainly couldn’t have helped (nor could Locke finding the Pearl station later). Now that I have read the book, I can sympathize with Desmond’s own inner torment during this period.
For more of my book reviews, check out my Literature of Lost series.