Like Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde and Seamus Heaney, Flann O’Brien spent his formative years in the bleak, rainy moorland of western Ulster. Someday a Ph.D. student will write a thesis explaining how this dour, sodden, landscape helped produce four of Ireland’s best and wittiest writers, but the mystery need not detain us - anyone who has ever tried to coax directions out of a County Tyrone farmer will understand why west Ulster humour is necessarily dark, laconic, labyrinthine and filled with irony. Beckett and Wilde were at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen but O’Brien, like Heaney, was of humbler stock, born Brian O’Nolan in Omagh, in 1911. After education at parochial school Brian O’Nolan moved to Dublin, joined the Irish Civil Service and began writing, adopting not one but two pseudonyms: Flann O’Brien for his novels and Myles na Gopaleen for his column in the Irish Times. His first book was the precocious and brilliant At Swim Two Birds, a surrealistic epic of Irish country life, published in 1939. Unfortunately the world had other things on its mind in 1939 and At Swim Two Birds died the death of most debut novels. Still Flann stuck it, producing several more books including The Hard Life and The Dalkey Archive. Unlike his contemporary Samuel Beckett Flann O’Brien was not recognized as a great writer in his lifetime, either by the Nobel Prize Committee or by anybody else. However by the late 1960's At Swim Two Birds had been rediscovered as a classic and the clamour for Flann O’Brien increased after the posthumous publication of The Third Policeman in 1967. The plot of The Third Policeman is not easy to summarize, as it’s not only the most comic but also the most surrealistic Irish crime novel ever written. The one-legged unnamed hero (or anti-hero) of the story has murdered a man for the contents of a black box. The black box may contain money or a magic talisman or his soul or the key out of purgatory. The hero is being investigated by rural Irish policemen who are obsessed by bicycles and he in turn is obsessed by the ramblings of an insane college professor and the mysterious Third Policeman, who may be Satan or an Angel or God himself. I know this doesn’t sound promising but you had to be there and you should be there - the book gets odder as it goes along and funnier too. Admirers of The Third Policeman are many. It is not a stretch to suggest that Flann O’Brien is a Celtic Kafka or an Irish Borges and, as viewers of Lost have discovered, Flann O’Brien’s influence and reputation has done nothing but grow over the years. Predicting stuff is a mug’s game but I’d give Grand National odds then when The Da Vinci Code and Hannibal Lecter and even (dare I say it) Harry Potter are forgotten in the mists of time, people will still be reading The Third Policeman not for some ‘Important Books’ college course, but rather for the sheer, unbridled joy of spending a while in the company of a truly weird comic genius.- Adrian McKinty
Adrian McKinty's The Bloomsday Dead is available in all good bookshops
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.