Murder Most Confusing – Frank McNally on Flann O’Brien’s murder weapon, Henry Marsh’s finger, and a relocated Joycean plaque

The art and literature round

In the “art and literature” round of a table quiz to raise funds for Gaza journalists at the weekend, our Irish Times team had a heated debate about the wording of the following question: “What implement did the narrator first use to commit murder in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman?”

The word “first” there was perplexing, at least for those of us who have read the book.

For those who haven’t yet, there is no need to issue plot spoiler alerts, since The Third Policeman is unusual among murder mysteries in revealing who did what, and how, in the opening sentence, viz:

“Not everybody knows how I killed old Philip 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.”


Thus, it is a spade the narrator uses – but exclusively, not “first” (which would imply that he killed again, later, with other implements – plot spoiler alert: he didn’t).

But was it possible the quiz-setter was confusing the fictional, unnamed narrator with the real-life one, Flann O’Brian aka Brian O’Nolan, who could, by the logic of his previous novel At Swim-two-birds, be himself guilty of the crime and who therefore might indeed be said to have “first used” the bicycle pump as his murder weapon?

After agonising for some time, we opted for the pump as the expected answer, while putting the spade in brackets, via a brief synopsis of the plot. In the event, it turned out to be the spade they were looking, although I think we got the point, after an appeal of howled indignation.

Sometimes you can know too much, clearly. Still, we did win the quiz overall, so that musn’t have been a major handicap. And naturally we returned the prize money, which like the rest of the proceeds went a fund to help Palestian journalists in Gaza, who have worse things to be worried about than fictional murders.


Returning yet again to the subject of Father Mathew’s missing fingers, I’m indebted to reader Des O’Neill for pointing me to the contrasting story of another Dublin statue which has one finger more than it should have.

Its subject is Sir Henry Marsh (1790-1860), whose stone likeness in the Royal College of Physicians, Kildare Street, is itself pointing, or at least crooking a right index finger elegantly in the air.

But in real life, Marsh could not have done this. For in attempting to become a surgeon as a young man, he accidentally deprived himself of the digit in question.

It became gangrenous from a self-inflicted cut with a scalpel and then had to be amputated, in the process forcing Marsh to revise his career ambitions and become a physician instead.

Whatever about physicians healing themselves, the sculptor John Foley later performed the miracle of restoring Marsh’s finger. But this was not just to cover up a doctor’s mistake.

As Ciara O’Neill wrote in the Winter 2023 issue of a Journal of Medical Humanities, “the smoothing out of pathology was a notable factor in some other celebrated statues of the period, most notably that of Josiah Wedgewood, the master potter.”

Suffering complications from smallpox, Wedgewood had to have one of his limbs amputated below the knee. But in a later statue by Edward Davis, he still had a full, and “perfectly symmetrical”, set of legs.


Another of the literature questions at the table quiz was an easy one: “In Joyce’s Ulysses, they’re not called ‘chapters’ – so what are they called?” And yes, reader, the answer is “episodes”.

But during a visit to Dublin’s Mullingar House on Tuesday, it struck me in passing that there might be a slightly more advanced Joycean question in the oddly-worded plaque above the door.

“Home of all characters and elements in James Joyce’s novel ‘Finnegans Wake’, it says, which sounds a little awkward.

But that “[H]ome of all C]haracters and [E]lements” was Dublin Tourism’s attempt to include the letters HCE, for Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, aka “Here Comes Everyone”, the shape-shifting male protagonist whose initials are ubiquitous in the book.

When I say it “struck me in passing”, I don’t mean the sign, although that used to occupy a more elevated position on the building’s upper storey, held in place with somewhat distressed fittings. Left to nature, it threatened to fall off eventually and perhaps brain a Joycean scholar on the way in or out of the pub.

This terrible scenario was hinted at on Tuesday by Andrew Basquille, who was part of a centenary reading of the novel’s Mamalujo section, for which the bar was packed even at 11am. Fortunately, as Basquille pointed out, the current owners have recently refixed the plaque, firmly and more visibly, on the ground floor, just above the door.