This piece appears in Down These Green Streets published by Liberties Press
Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade . . . The Third Policeman
My Lord, when you ask me to tell the court in my own words, this is what I shall say. I am kept locked up here like some exotic animal, last survivor of a species they had thought extinct. The Book of Evidence
When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs Nugent. The Butcher Boy
As Dory says in Finding Nemo at the point where Marlin starts telling his story, ‘Oh boy, this is gonna be good, I I can tell.’ When I first started reading The Third Policeman, in the mid-1970s – the Picador edition with that haunting cover art by Nick Bantock, an eerily smiling face superimposed on itself as it turns to look in our direction – I could tell it was going to be good. Other, recent books that had been ‘good’ included Catch-22, The Long Goodbye, High-Rise and Brighton Rock. There’s a quality to your reading at that age (this also applies to love, of course) that can only be described as ‘magical’, and that you can easily spend the rest of your life trying to recapture. You give yourself up to it unconditionally, you let it wash over you, and not only does it feed your imagination, in some sense it activates it, defines it, shapes it.
The Third Policeman had that kind of power. First of all, it was funny – and back then (mid 70s, mid teens) funny was important, funny was currency, funny was the lingua franca of the schoolyard. It’s hard to appreciate now just how revolutionary and ‘mind-blowing’ the comedy of that time was, particularly Monty Python and the early, funny Woody Allen movies, where the main response tended to be, “I didn’t know you could do that. I didn’t know you were allowed.” And with The Third Policeman here was a novel breaking all the rules as well that had not only been published a decade before but had been written almost three decades before that again. The Third Policeman was playful and deliriously post-modern. It had the de Selby footnotes, the interpolations of Joe, the narrator’s soul, and, of course, the bicycles. (The temptation here, to be resisted at all costs – as it never was in the schoolyard – is simply to repeat the jokes).
But funny as it was, a good deal of The Third Policeman’s power lay elsewhere. Its opening sentence, for example, isn’t terribly funny. Nor is its relentless portrayal of psychological torment, its clinical dissection of human guilt. Of course it is easy to forget this, but what lies at the heart of The Third Policeman is an act of violence, a brutal murder – a crime, if you will. This aspect of the book forms an essential part of its lingering appeal, and whereas an episode of Monty Python or an early, funny Woody Allen movie, can seem curiously alien today and leave one feeling a little lost, I find that The Third Policeman easily retains its grip on the imagination. Flann O’Brien himself was well aware of the book’s duality. In a letter to William Saroyan he famously wrote, ‘When you are writing about the world of the dead – and the damned – where none of the rules and laws (not even the law of gravity) holds good, there is any amount of scope for back-chat and funny cracks.’ But it could just as easily have been the other way around: limitless scope for back-chat and funny cracks shouldn’t preclude a writer from dealing with the darkest, most macabre of subject matters.
And this is NOT by way of preamble to some elaborate theory that the book is secretly a crime novel, or even a proto-crime novel. Life is too short for that kind of engagement. But what I do think is interesting is that The Third Policeman contains elements of the crime novel which contribute significantly to its power and lasting appeal.
Narrated in the first person, it is a disturbingly intimate and claustrophobic portrait of the contorted mind of a murderer – and we are given access to its darkest corners, to its slipperiest rationalizations, to its most grandiose self-delusions. In addition, we are forced to watch as the narrator commits his crime. We are forced to help him tidy up afterwards. We are forced to sweat along in a fever of terror and guilt as he transmogrifies the external world and reshapes it to mirror his own crumbling sanity.
But perhaps the most curious thing here is that Flann O’Brien is not the only major Irish literary writer to do this. In different forms, and within fairly broad parameters, several others have done something very similar – John Banville in The Book of Evidence, for example, and Patrick McCabe in both The Butcher Boy and Winterwood. There are also strong elements of it in Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest and in William Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey. For these authors the principal concern is not the procedural but the psychological, not the ‘who’ or ‘how’ but the ‘why’, so whether it be due to greed, ennui, neglect, psychosis or abuse, what we get is a widely diverse series of widescreen POVs of the sick-fuck mick in action.
However, because these book are so diverse – and mostly predate the recent surge in Irish crime fiction – there is no point (and I have no interest) in trying to claim them as some kind of sub-genre, much less in trying to shoehorn them onto the genre shelves.
What would be the point?
Genre classification is useful, but only in this sense: if you went into a Waterstone’s or a Barnes & Noble and found that they employed no sorting mechanism other than the alphabet, it’d be pretty inconvenient. Classification saves time and makes things easy. But that’s about it. It doesn’t tell you if a book is good or bad – and there’s plenty of both on whatever shelves you might happen to be browsing at. (An interesting case here for students – or combatants – of the genre wars is Brian Moore, a writer who achieved the neat trick of being classified as a literary novelist, but many of whose novels are routinely described as thrillers, and whose first five books, avowedly genre thrillers, are airbrushed out of existence whenever his first ‘novel’ is declared to be Judith Hearne).
The books mentioned above, however, share a common concern. They are all interested in what leads up to the act of murder and they are all interested in what happens afterwards, in the psychological fallout. They are all interested in the universal truth that murder leaves a stain that can never be eradicated.
And, for the record, they are all ‘good’.
In a letter to his publisher, written in 1937, Flann O’Brien explicitly referred to The Third Policeman as starting out like ‘an orthodox murder mystery’. While it’s not clear to us today what exactly that might have meant to him – or what murder mysteries he was reading at the time – it’s very clear that O’Brien wasn’t reined in by notions of form or convention, and he certainly wasn’t writing within any confines we would recognize today as genre. But if we go ahead and relieve O’Brien of all responsibility in this area, it’s still hard not to suspect that, had he been tempted, he might actually have enjoyed writing some form of genre fiction.
And, indeed, he may well have been tempted, because several times in his life O’Brien claimed to have written short novels for the popular Sexton Blake detective series – pseudonymously of course. Anthony Cronin, in his biography of O’Brien (No Laughing Matter: The Life and Times of Flann O’Brien), investigates this matter thoroughly and it seems O’Brien may not actually have written the stories as claimed – but it is also clear that even if he had he would have been doing so exclusively for the dough.
Still, the notion is intriguing, and what one wouldn’t give to read O’Brien’s take on the so-called ‘prince of the penny dreadfuls’ – and from a time in the series (the early 1950s) that was offering up such titles as The Mystery of the Red Tower, The Riddle of the Body on the Road, Dark Mambo, Devil’s Can-Can and Requiem for Redheads. It’s the stuff that de Selby-like cults are made of, and has even resulted in an obscure 1992 movie called The Cardinal and the Corpse which deals with the search for a long-lost Flann O’Brien Sexton Blake text of the same name.
But – coming back to earth – one story we know that O’Brien did write in the early 1950s is called ‘Two in One’ (later adapted for television as The Dead Spit of Kelly). Short, slight and decidedly non-comedic, it gives us a glimpse of O’Brien’s continuing interest in the macabre. The story tells of Murphy, a taxidermist who murders his boss, Kelly, and gruesomely disposes of the body parts, retaining only the skin, which he then inhabits. In effect, he ‘becomes’ Kelly and proceeds to live Kelly’s life. Eventually, however, he is arrested and found guilty of murdering himself. In his one-man show The Brother, Eamon Morrissey narrates the story from the setting of a prison cell. He tells it straight – in contrast to the rest of the show, which is hilarious – and the effect is very chilling. I remember seeing the original production in the Peacock and being mesmerized by this section of it. The story itself predates TV programmes such as ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’, but it displays some of the qualities that made those shows so popular and is further evidence of a certain thrillerish strain in O’Brien’s writing.
And although it would be a mistake to make too much of this – because let’s face it, Flann O’Brien didn’t write thrillers or mysteries or SF (or bodice rippers, something else he laid claim to), he wasn’t genre, he was sui generis – it is still in The Third Policeman that we find this strain of his writing at its most developed and most interesting.
The book’s original title was to be Hell Goes Round and Round. Mercifully, this was dropped (not only is it an awful title, it contains a pretty big example of what we would now call a ‘spoiler’), but it does give us a pretty succinct formulation of what O’Brien was trying to do in the book. The protagonist commits a murder; he pays for this heinous act with his soul, and goes on paying for it until the end of eternity. The structure of the novel is one revolution of hell, with the shocking promise in its tail of all the others to come. The opening chapter is probably the straightest, most deliberately unfunny thing O’Brien ever wrote. In curiously detached language, the narrator introduces himself, sets out the depressingly venal reasons for the murder – he could use the money old Mathers keeps in his black cash-box – and then he and his accomplice John Divney carry out the deed.
I went forward mechanically, swung the spade over my shoulder and smashed the blade of it with all my strength against the protruding chin. I felt and almost heard the fabric of his skull crumple up crisply like an empty eggshell. I do not know how often I struck him after that but I did not stop until I was tired.
Despite the cold, mechanical nature of this act, the narrator is soon stewing in fear and guilt, and it is not long either before he invokes the spectre of the gallows. After a lengthy period of time, he manages to get back to old Mathers’s house to try and retrieve the black cash-box, but there – unbeknownst to himself, of course – he meets his own violent end. Thus begins a most eerie ghost story, as the narrator’s consciousness sets out on its hallucinatory journey into the great circular void.
This middle section of the book is a long, agonising recalibration of what the narrator still assumes to be reality. Here O’Brien indulges his interest in physics and philosophy and new scientific concepts that were current in the late thirties (and let’s remember that O’Brien, who we tend to think of as a razor-witted but curmudgeonly old bollocks – thanks in large part to that amazing footage of the first Bloomsday in 1954 – was only twenty-eight at the time). Sources he cited include A. N. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World and J. W. Dunne’s An Experiment with Time and The Serial Universe. (There is a full study of O’Brien’s use of these sources in Anne Clissman’s Flann O’Brien: a Critical Introduction to his Writings).
What we find in this middle section of the book is a nightmarish, looking-glass world where the laws of physics are casually turned on their head and where the narrator is constantly struggling to corral his experience into language that is rational and familiar. There is then a marked shift in pace and tension as the narrator becomes increasingly concerned about the building of the gallows. There is also a resurgence of his venality as reflected in his renewed attempts to get at the contents of the black cash-box, which are always just out of his reach. When he is leaving ‘eternity’ with the Sergeant and MacCruiskeen he also believes he can take his new-found treasure with him, a bag stuffed with precious stones, cash, a bottle of whiskey and a lethal weapon he clearly intends to use on his captors. But this, frustratingly, turns out not to be possible. Later, he indulges in a wild flight of Faustian fancy, imagining the incredible things he’ll be able to achieve with his four ounces of omnium, but any hope of realising these dreams slips all too easily from his grasp as well . . .
The closing of the book is heart-stopping in its psychological horror. There is that awful scene in the kitchen of the narrator’s old house where we realize that he has been away, not for a few days, but for sixteen years, and that John Divney is about to join him – and, for as long as we go on reading the book, us – in the befuddlement and tedium of eternal damnation.
But for all that The Third Policeman is thematically adventurous, with its philosophical investigations into absurdity and negation, and for all that it is a treasure-trove of comic inventiveness, it is the novel’s dramatic structure, this unfolding of the mystery at its heart, that is one of its most satisfying and memorable aspects. What stays with the reader is the novel’s portrayal of a murderous mind in the perpetual motion of perpetual anxiety.
The book was rejected by Longman’s in 1940 and this dealt a severe blow to O’Brien’s confidence. He put the book away and even grew to dislike it. The Third Policeman was a risky and courageous work and if it had received the attention it deserved at the time – when O’Brien was still young – who knows in what direction he might subsequently have ventured.
We enter the mind of a very different murderer in John Banville’s The Book of Evidence.
The narrator of The Third Policeman remains nameless and is generally reluctant to reveal any personal details – considering it desirable that nothing should be known about him but even better if several things are known about him which are quite wrong. The narrator of The Book of Evidence, by considerable contrast, has a name – Frederick Charles St John Vanderveld Montgomery, and is quite happy for us to know absolutely everything about him. And while the narrator of The Third Policeman often seems unaware of himself, even uninterested, Freddie Montgomery is almost pathologically self-aware and interested in nothing but himself.
The atmosphere inside this murderer’s mind is airless and claustrophobic. He views the world with ‘grand detachment’ while at the same time viewing himself with a sort of queasy incredulity. He has no sense of being real or authentic. He is ‘something without weight . . . a floating phantom’ who is also condemned to endure the endless, petty humiliations of living in the physical world. Despite his ability for rigorous self-analysis – and in language that is precise and often very beautiful – Freddy is an unreliable narrator, and his ‘confession’ is full of internal contradictions.
Of course, none of this would be of any consequence if the man could manage to stay out of trouble. But he can’t. He commits murder. And again, it is this extreme act of transgression which throws everything into relief and heightens, defines even, our interest in his behaviour and in his mindset.
Freddie blackmails a small-time drug dealer on a Mediterranean island, spends the loot and then finds out that he must repay it or his wife and son will come to harm. Unable to raise the money, he returns to Ireland with the intention of liquidating his late father’s art collection only to discover that his mother has already sold it to family friend Binkie Behrens for a paltry sum, which she then proceeds to blow on ‘a string of plug-ugly ponies’. In anger and desperation, Freddie steals a 17th-century Dutch portrait and ends up kidnapping and killing a servant girl in the process – a murder which is quite startling in its graphic horror.
I pushed her away from me and swung the hammer in a wide, backhand sweep. The force of the blow flung her against the door, and her head struck the window, and a fine thread of blood ran out of her nostril and across her cheek.
In some respects Freddie is not unlike Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley. He is cultured, has a taste for the finer things in life and is motivated by nothing more complex than a desire for creature comforts. But in certain other respects he is the anti-Tom Ripley, because whereas Tom kills for practical reasons and is very efficient at covering his tracks, Freddie is a victim of the ‘ceaseless, slow, demented drift of things’ and acts with such abandon that his eventual capture and conviction for murder are inevitable and arrive with little or no tension.
Banville based his novel on the Malcolm MacArthur case from the early 1980s. He follows the story closely, though there are differences – the most significant one being that MacArthur killed twice. In an interview a few years ago, Banville said – and defensively, almost tenderly – that Freddie Montgomery would never have killed a second time.
This is fine, of course, and entirely legitimate, but there are dangers inherent in writing about ‘true’ crimes. For those familiar with the facts of the original case, MacArthur hiding out in the Attorney General’s apartment, during which sitting Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, may or may not have paid a visit, is tantalizing stuff indeed and certainly a lot more ‘grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented’ than the curiously muted version in the book. It is hard to say, but for those not familiar with the source material, Max Molyneaux may just prove to be an unnecessarily puzzling figure.
Freddie Montgomery, in any case, is a wonderful creation, a sort of late-20th century poster-boy for good old-fashioned existentialism. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Camus’s Meursault and Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Freddie stumbles through a meaningless universe. Like them, too, he stumbles into a moral black hole.
But something you can’t help wondering here – if it weren’t for murder, would we ever have heard from these tortured souls in the first place? And if we had would we have been interested in their stories?
It seems unlikely.
While it may be hard to drum up any sympathy for either of our first two killers, the next one in line is a different kettle of fish altogether. Francie Brady, the hero of Patrick McCabe’s magnificent The Butcher Boy, wins our vote from the get-go – though he certainly does commit a vile and unspeakable crime, to wit:
I smacked her against the wall a few times there was a smear of blood at the corner of her mouth and her hand was reaching out trying to touch me when I cocked the captive bolt. I lifted her off the floor with one hand and shot the bolt right into her head thlok was the sound it made, like a goldfish dropping into a bowl. If you ask anyone how you kill a pig they will tell you cut its throat across but don’t do it longways. Then she just lay there with her chin sticking up and I opened her then I stuck my hand in her stomach and wrote PIGS all over the walls of the upstairs room.
The difference here is that rather than drifting into murder through greed or venality, Francie is pushed into it. Slowly, incrementally, he is tipped over the edge by the relentless neglect and abuse he suffers as a child. Denied even the least shred of love or security, he learns to insulate himself from pain, and even from awareness. And whereas the other killings happen easily enough, even casually, and spark the events of their respective stories, the murder that Francie commits is a slow-burn affair, and is the end-point of his story, its inevitable and logical conclusion.
The thing is, Francie Brady isn’t adrift in a meaningless, dysfunctional universe, he is a meaningless, dysfunctional universe. And it’s a seductive one at first – funny, engaging, subversive, iconoclastic. Francie has all the attractive energies of a young boy, the boundless imagination, the generosity of spirit, the ingenuity, the playfulness. But what happens to these attributes when they are denied the oxygen of real and meaningful human interaction? They shrivel up is what, they become bent and twisted out of shape, and ultimately, in their new form, they become lethal.
It is a process which is deceptive in its simplicity, because again, through expert use of first person narration – and, in this case, a glorious supernova of linguistic brilliance – we are seduced, cajoled and distracted from what is really happening. Francie’s voice constantly slides from a sing-song intimacy, rich with humour and popular culture references, to a sort of demented, hallucinogenic white noise. And what he’s telling us often feels like the tip of a very large iceberg, with the tip a distraction, a coping mechanism, and what lies beneath the gradual descent of a human mind into homicidal madness.
We get something similar with another of Patrick McCabe’s heroes. Initially, Redmond Hatch in Winterwood comes across as more together – more self-aware and more articulate – than Francie Brady, but we are slowly led to suspect that he may well be just as unhinged as the butcher boy. There is no explicit murder scene here to parade before your eyes, only suggestion and oblique hints, talk of maggots and the hellish sanctuary of Winterwood itself. The narrative is fragmented, a jigsaw of abuse, pain and damage. It is a folk epic, but one in which the transformative power of song and storytelling can only go so far – because behind all the phantasmagoria lies a simple truth, and a simple dynamic: the damage caused by violating innocence cannot be contained or expunged, it is a malevolent force that filters down from generation to generation.
Redmond Hatch’s ultimate fate is not unlike that of the narrator’s in The Third Policeman. The price he must pay for murdering his wife and daughter is eternal damnation, and the final paragraphs of Winterwood are among the most horrific, bleak and devastating you will ever read.
Another victim of neglect and abuse who ends up committing murder is Michen O’Kane in Edna O’Brien’s novel In The Forest. The book is based on the 1994 case of Brendan O’Donnell, who murdered Imelda Riney, her three-year-old son Liam, and a priest, Fr Joe Walshe, in Cregg Wood, Co Clare. The book explores not just the mind of a single deranged killer but also seeks to explore the impact of his crime on a whole community. Like Patrick McCabe, Edna O’Brien mythologises her protagonist. He is the kinderschreck, the bugbear and, at some level, the scapegoat – the one fated to channel the community’s fears and weaknesses, its darkest impulses and desires. We never identify with O’Kane, or even sympathise with him, and this is probably because In the Forest also gets inside the heads of his victims, Eily Ryan, young Maddie and Fr John. Significantly, too, O’Kane lacks the macabre charms and manic energy of a Francie Brady. This isn’t necessarily a problem, though – because while O’Kane remains a terrifying and tragic figure, there is at the same time something very grounded and realistic about the way O’Brien portrays him. There is a clinical as well as a mythic strain to the language, and this seems appropriate as it implies O’Kane is not just a product of some collective communal unconscious but also that he is a product of our seriously deficient mental healthcare services.
Not all killers in Irish literary fiction, however, are wild and out of control. Take the case of Mr Hilditch in William Trevor’s Felicia’s Journey, for example. Here is a quiet killer, fastidious and middle-class, someone who keeps bound volumes of Railway and Travel Monthly on his bookshelves.
OK, OK, so he’s English.
But William Trevor isn’t. He’s from Cork. And in Felicia’s Journey he gives us one of the most memorable, most masterfully drawn characters in recent modern fiction. Mr Hilditch is a catering manager in a factory not far from Birmingham, he lives alone in a house built by a tea merchant in 1867 – Number 3, Duke of Wellington Road. He is over nineteen stone in weight and, not surprisingly, likes his food – turkey pies, liver and onions, steamed puddings, packets of crisps, Bounty bars, anything that is to hand. Occasionally, he befriends distressed or lost young women, derives pleasure and some form of validation from being observed in their company, and then, when they withdraw, when they turn, he murders them. This is all conveyed in the subtlest way, there is no act of violence described or even alluded to. We infer everything and information is meted out one carefully placed crumb at a time. As with In the Forest, we also get the perspective of the victim – or, in this case, let us say, his latest potential victim, Felicia, a pregnant young girl from Ireland who has come over in search of her boyfriend.
Mr Hilditch is a monster, a serial killer by way of Dickens, and while we don’t quite sympathise with him, we are nevertheless drawn into his world and are given sufficient glimmers from his childhood to understand, once again, that serious psychic damage leaves its mark, it incubates and one day it will hatch.
This superbly controlled novel dramatizes the random intersection of two lives, Mr Hilditch’s and Felicia’s, and its account of their respective fates is both uncompromisingly bleak and heartrending.
Central to each of these books, then – most foul or otherwise – is murder. They may not be crime fiction in the popularly accepted sense, but in each case it is the primordial act of homicide which gives the story focus and definition. Without the murders these might be interesting psychological case studies of damaged people, but they would lack a certain inexorable narrative logic – not to mention very welcome doses of pacing and tension. In the end, they wouldn’t be as interesting or anywhere near as appealing as they clearly still are.
Irish crime fiction has come a long way in a short time, but writers here have always been fascinated by violence, by the psychological states that can lead to it and by the lasting damage that inevitably flows from it. This fascination – which can also be found in the theatre, most obviously in The Playboy of the Western World and The Field – has found a natural home in the various forms, voices and tropes of crime fiction.
But that’s not the whole story.
Just as the Irish literary novels discussed above contain significant elements of crime fiction, many of the finest examples of recent Irish crime fiction contain what might be considered significant elements of literary fiction – depth of characterization, subtle and poetic use of language, and a keen willingness to explore the darker corners of human nature.
So it seems to work both ways now. Lines are blurring, parameters broadening, and there’s a whole lotta cross-fertilisation going on.
Which either complicates matters or simplifies them.
I go with simplifies.
Because back in the mid-1970s when I was browsing around the Dublin bookshops – the old Eblana, the Paperback Centre, the APCK – I was just as excited by The Third Policeman as I was by The Long Goodbye, by the Nick Bantock jacket as by the updated ‘green’ Penguin with (curiously) Bogie and Bacall on the cover. I wasn’t going around the place worried about what was probably still being referred to – though not by me, or by anyone I knew – as ‘high art’ and ‘low art’.
In those prelapsarian times, long before the sales and marketing folk took over the asylum, I certainly wasn’t fretting about such stuff.
And I don’t see why I should be now.