“Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade; but first it is better to speak of my friendship with John Divney because it was he who first knocked old Mathers down by giving him a great blow in the neck with a special bicycle-pump which he manufactured himself out of a hollow iron bar. Divney was a strong civil man but he was lazy and idle-minded. He was personally responsible for the whole idea in the first place. It was he who told me to bring my spade. He was the one who gave the orders on the occasion and also the explanations when they were called for.
That’s the opening of ‘The Third Policeman, ’ by Flann O'Brien, and it contains a psychology of psychopathy. The cool, unemotional account of a violent murder. The ranking of murder as equal in importance to the manufacture of a bicycle-pump, and the instant shifting of blame.
I first read ‘The Third Policeman’ thirty years ago, and on re-reading, I find that what I remembered are the most comic scenes — the atomic theory, as applied to bicycles and Irish roads; the men who are more than 75% bicycle; the delicate legal matter of deciding, when a man who is predominately bicycle, commits a murder, which should be hung? The man or the bicycle? And a coffin for a bicycle — 'an intricate piece of joinery.'
As I read, certain images kept coming into my mind, all drawn from ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,’ with its strange, skewed perspectives.
“As I came round the bend of the road an extraordinary spectacle was presented to me. About a hundred yards away on the left-hand side was a house which astonished me. It looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing. It did not seem to have any depth or breadth and looked as if it would not deceive a child… What bewildered me was the sure knowledge deeply rooted in my mind that this was the house I was searching for… I had never seen with my eyes ever in my life before anything so unnatural and appalling and my gaze faltered about the thing uncomprehendingly as if at least one of the customary dimensions was missing, leaving no meaning in the remainder. The appearance of the house was the greatest surprise I had encountered since I had seen the old man in the chair and I felt afraid of it.”
'My gaze faltered about the thing...' What a phrase.
“I clambered through the opening and found myself, not at once in a room, but crawling along the deepest window-ledge I have ever seen. When I reached the floor and jumped noisily down upon it, the open window seemed very far away and much too small to have admitted me.”
He discovers that the cash-box has gone. And then:—
“I heard a cough behind me, soft, and natural yet more disturbing than any sound that could come upon the human ear. That I did not die of fright was due to two things, the fact that my senses were already disarranged and also that…the cough seemed to bring with it some more awful alteration in everything, just as if it had held the universe standstill for an instant…"