The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (audio)

third policemanThis will win the Pagesofjulia Perplexing and Peculiar Award of 2016, which I have just invented.

Flann O’Brien is one of the pen names of Brian O’Nolan (he also wrote under the name Myles na gCopaleen, or Myles na Gopaleen; Brother Barnabas; etc.). This novel came to me first from this list by the Guardian, and then from my friend Barrett, who bought me O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds when we were traveling in Ireland together several years ago. (I still have not read that one.)

The Third Policeman is not so strictly about bicycles or cycling as the Guardian list had led me to believe; I was quite confused for the first, oh, third or so of the book. Our unnamed narrator is an odd one. He was orphaned, lost a leg, and then returned home from college to find his parents’ pub managed by a man named Divney, who is clearly embezzling from the business. Narrator is quite obsessed with a (fictional) scientist-philosopher named de Selby, about whom he writes a definitive work that he cannot afford to have published. This financial need is set up as his motivation to join in a plot with Divney to rob and murder a neighbor, the wealthy Mathers. After the murder, Divney hides the money, inspiring Narrator to follow him around closely, finally sleeping in the same bed to prevent Divney’s sneaking off to recover the funds alone. Very strange, right? It gets stranger. Narrator meets a figure who is, apparently, the ghost of Mathers; Narrator’s soul speaks up quite suddenly, is named Joe, and becomes an occasional participant in dialog; Narrator hikes off to find a certain police station where he wants to report the theft of a nonexistent watch, thereby seeking clues as to Mathers’s missing money; etc. When we meet the policemen (only two of them, the titular third being absent), we get into the bicycle-related part of the book, but nothing makes any more sense than before. Remember de Selby, Narrator’s obsession? Footnotes throughout discuss his life and work (gradually revealing that he was perhaps less the genius than Narrator would have us think), and, digressively, the lives and petty conflicts of de Selby’s other biographers. WHEW.

The policemen, in turn, are obsessed with bicycles. (Recall this teaser.) Apparently in their world, those who spend too much time on their bicycles become bicycles. You know I loved this part.

This plot, if I may call it that, is every bit as twisted and weird and disconnected as it sounds. Despite all that, it is entertaining, stylish in its own way, and yes, smart. Narrator has a strong voice and personality, strange though he be. The policemen have interesting theories and skills, metaphysical and philosophic. And I have by no means hinted at the central questions of the book yet; there is a final big reveal that makes you think. No spoilers here! and you should avoid them elsewhere to keep The Third Policeman‘s full effect intact.

As far as I can tell, O’Brien gets credit with coining a usage of the word ‘pancake’ for ‘puzzle.’ His policemen use it repeatedly:

It is one of the most compressed and intricate pancakes that I have ever known.

…nearly an insoluble pancake…

A very unnatural pancake. A contrary pancake surely…

And thus my rating: this book is a contrary pancake surely.

The real live narrator, who reads this audiobook for us, is Jim Norton, and he does a splendid job. I felt pulled into a surreal world that I enjoyed and giggled at and was occasionally disturbed by. I’m sure I missed two-thirds at least of the opportunities to interpret this work as a piece of philosophy, itself, but I was utterly entertained. The audio format worked well for letting the zaniness just wash over me. It would not be ideal for close reading, of course – never is – but I really appreciated the experience of this audio introduction to Flann O’Brien, or whatever he calls himself, and I will read more. Don’t be too intimidated – just, don’t expect to understand everything you hear. I’m sure O’Brien has been the subject of a few dissertations, and is probably ripe for another, if you’re feeling ambitious.


Rating: 7 pancakes.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

This is an exceptionally strange one, friends. I got a little confused. This was recommended as one of The Ten Best Books About Cycling. But early pages (hours) were devoted to an odd friendship, an odder murder and reanimation, and the main character’s obsessive devotion to and criticism of a fictional philosopher.

third policeman The plot remains weird, which I have come to accept is partly the point; and now we have got around to bicycles.

“I do not want to be insidious,” he said, “but would you inform me about your arrival in the parish? Surely you had a three-speed gear for the hills?”

“I had no three-speed gear,” I responded rather sharply, “and no two-speed gear and it is also true that I had no bicycle and little or no pump and if I had a lamp itself it would not be necessary if I had no bicycle and there would be no bracket to hang it on.”

“That may be,” said MacCruiskeen, “but likely you were laughed at on the tricycle?”

“I had neither bicycle nor tricycle and I am not a dentist,” I said with severe categorical thoroughness, “and I do not believe in the penny-farthing or the scooter, the velocipede or the tandem-tourer.”

MacCruiskeen got white and shaky and gripped my arm and looked at me intensely.

“In my natural puff,” he said at last, in a strained voice, “I have never encountered a more fantastic epilogue or a queerer story. Surely you are a far-fetched man. To my dying night I will not forget this today morning.”

I am totally tickled, naturally. Stick around, and I will try to illuminate the weirdness for you in my final review. For now: worthwhile.

Two Wheels by Greg Moody

two wheelsAn unusual treat: I read this book all of my own choosing.

Two Wheels is the first in Greg Moody’s series of murder mysteries framed by the professional road bike racing world. Naturally, it is set in Europe, although the main characters are Americans. Jean-Pierre Colgan is the world’s best, and leader of the accomplished Haven team, sponsored by Haven Pharmaceuticals. He is a cocky and not entirely likeable character, which is a fine thing because he dies in the opening pages when his brand-new, high-tech American toaster explodes. In the first quirky turn, we then see Colgan enter heaven – or something like heaven – where he is greeted by Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi. Anquetil, on the other hand, won’t speak to him.

Next we meet the American Will Ross, a washed-up retired racer drinking himself stupid in Belgium, who inexplicably gets hired to replace Colgan on the Haven team. Will is as surprised as anyone, still more so when his ex-wife turns out to be part of the team’s management. With no love lost between them, her position only makes his hiring more confounding.

Cheryl is the team soigneur, also American and regretting the recent end of her own race career. She and Will get off to a rocky start, but she will turn out to be an ally. Tomas Delgado is team mechanic, and an old friend of Will’s: good news. The rest of the Haven squad is understandably unhappy to have Will join them, but he is just starting to get the hang of things again – find his legs, and his lost passion for the sport – when the body count begins to rise. Colgan’s death, of course, was no accident. Somebody seems to have it out for the Haven team, and Will finds himself attempting an awkward impromptu investigation, in the interest of saving his own skin. Oh yes, and there is French detective Godot, who reminds us of Columbo and seems to be imitating that American icon on purposes. There is a thread throughout the story of the tension between American and French culture: television, slang, American football versus professional cycling.

Two Wheels is not quite a cozy, as the murder weapon of choice is plastic explosives and the results are pretty bloody; but it fits into the sub-genre of mysteries defined by their framing elements. The plot of the mystery itself is enjoyable, if not especially remarkable unto itself. Will is a little slow on the uptake as investigator, and a big coincidence revealed late in the book falls a bit short of credible. As a mystery, then, Two Wheels is fine but not unique. The cycling motif is more distinctive, and adequately well done; the pain and love of the sport, the pavé of Paris-Roubaix and the climbs of La Ronde van Vlaanderen are convincing. Moody is at his best when he works with Will’s self-deprecating humor; for lyrical praise of the road I recommend Tim Krabbe’s The Rider instead; but the whole package is perfectly entertaining, often funny, and overall loveable. Obviously, Two Wheels will be most appreciated by those who share Moody’s and Will’s love for the sport. I think it could be the start of a promising series.


Rating: 6 kilometers.

book beginnings on Friday: Two Wheels by Greg Moody

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.


two wheels

I am having a rare break between paid reviews, and undertaking a lighter read. Two Wheels is “a cycling murder mystery,” and a bit silly, but fun. It begins:

“It’s good to be king,” he thought. Jean-Pierre Colgan stood at the window, staring out over a dazzling Paris on a drizzling late January Sunday. Despite the rain and the gray overcast, it remained a dazzling Paris because it was a Paris that belonged to him.

I like the interplay of dazzling / drizzling.

It will not be a spoiler (because it happens in the first few pages, and is stated in the back-of-the-book blurb) to tell you that Colgan is killed in a bizarre explosion involving a high-tech American toaster. (The troubled relationship between French and American cultures – centrally in television and sports – is a theme.) So, not king for long.

Stay tuned.

Lanterne Rouge by Max Leonard

An amiable history of a largely unsung hero pays respects to the last-place finisher of the Tour de France.

lanterne

Even non-cycling fans recognize the Tour de France as the sport’s biggest annual event. Naturally, the attention of the press and the viewer is focused at the front of the race, where attacks, group sprints and winners are born. In Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France, Max Leonard directs overdue consideration to a different segment of the Tour, where he finds a less fairytale-like but very sincere story.

Ever since the Tour was founded in 1903, as a struggling newspaper’s publicity stunt, someone necessarily has come in last place. Cycling’s term for that someone dates back almost as far: based on his research, Leonard argues that it must have been in use before World War I. The usage of lanterne rouge, or red lantern, is generally accepted as having come from the railroad, where a red lantern lit the last car, letting signalmen know the line behind was clear. Over the last century and more, the lanterne has been variously a joke, a dishonor, an achievement to be sought after and a source of controversy, conflict and myth.

Importantly, the lanterne rouge achieves the accomplishment of finishing the race. The Tour has always had a high rate of attrition. Many men withdraw from the race over weeks of mountain passes, long days and severe weather; some years, Tour staff have pulled trailing riders from the race as well. The lanterne is the man who finishes last–but finishes, a respectable feat.

Leonard makes his passion easily felt as he follows his underappreciated subject. In his prologue (a word not only for a book’s introduction but also a preliminary time-trial stage of the Tour), he attempts to ride a mountain stage of the Tour, but DNF’s (“did not finish”), and his failure will haunt him for the rest of his research and writing process. He then spends nearly two years meeting with surviving lanternes and those who remember them, and searching French libraries for scraps of information about the earliest ones. For example, he pursues the legends of the first lanterne rouge, Arsène Millocheau of 1903 (but did he really finish the race?), and of Abdel-Kader Zaaf of 1951, whose story involves wine, naps, religious difference and colonial racism. Leonard studies the lanterne (and, somewhat resignedly, the leading yellow jersey as well) exhaustively, throughout history and through the race’s evolutions and rule changes. A chapter on drug and doping scandals rounds out any analysis of the Tour, and yes, some lanternes were involved.

Lanterne Rouge is an engaging, exhaustive survey of the last man in the Tour de France, a history, a collection of appealing anecdotes and a psychological consideration of winning and losing. An obvious choice for serious cycling fans, Leonard’s approachable study will also please general sports fans, history enthusiasts and those who root for the underdog.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the June 12, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 bidons.

Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray

A novel of love and bicycles, both funny and poignant, beginning in Mussolini’s Italy and traveling around the world.

luigi

Alan Murray (The Wealth of Choices; Showdown at Gucci Gulch) tries his hand at fiction with Luigi’s Freedom Ride, and achieves a rare blend of humor, solemnity and grace in this sweeping tale. Luigi Ferraro was born in 1921, in a small Tuscan village where he learned metalworking and a love of bicycles from his Uncle Cesare. Under Mussolini, Luigi is conscripted into the Italian army with his two best friends and trains in the cycling corps; he escapes and joins a group of partisans resisting fascism, and experiences both love and loss. The heartbroken young man then sets out on an international tour via bicycle and train, visiting Jerusalem and Sri Lanka and circumnavigating Australia, that “furthest place” he’d been seeking. Finally, Luigi dismounts in Sydney, where unexpected good fortune awaits him. With friends, family, love and pain spread around the globe, will he ever make it back to Tuscany?

Murray’s quirky tone is absolutely charming, managing to express both the brutality and ugliness of war as well as the sweetly naive foibles of a young man learning about the wider world. Luigi is deeply endearing: he is well-intentioned but inexperienced, confounded by the English dialects of the Scots, Australians and Americans he meets, loyal and quick to love. Employing the bicycle as a symbol of freedom, fun, adventure and forward movement, Luigi’s Freedom Ride is a novel about hope, self-determination and fresh starts, both heartfelt and surprisingly optimistic.


This review originally ran in the February 24, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 clicks.

two-wheeled thoughts & Teaser Tuesdays: Luigi’s Freedom Ride by Alan Murray

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Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Two-wheeled thoughts is my own.

luigi

I am very excited about Luigi’s Freedom Ride, a novel that accomplishes what Life is Beautiful did in film: a story about the horrors of World War II, but that is also funny, joyful, hopeful. And bicycles! Really! Go out and get this one. Review to come, but I wanted to share two bike-related lines that amused me.

Who there could possibly doubt the determination of this young, fit, self-assured bicycle man?

Who, indeed? Yes, I regret that this has to be so man-centered; but to give a little context, the setting is a 1930’s war-bound Italian culture of machismo – and the next lines are spoken in a military training camp.

All that truly mattered was mastery of the bicycle, and the unbreakable, manly bonds that flowed from such mastery.

Manly bonds! And with that I leave you.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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