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Today I’m delighted to welcome Tom O Keenan, whose latest book in the Sean Rooney, Psychosleuth series, The Son, is out this month. It follows The Father, which was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger, and The Family. Tom is obviously good at sleight-of-hand, as he’s nominated five books ‘from which to best select three’ !

I am delighted to be included in the Secret Library, during the lead-in to my new novel, The Son, to be realised soon. Over thirty years as a social worker working in mental health settings informs my writing. The Son is third in my Sean Rooney, Psychosleuth series, which includes The Family and The Father.

Recently in The Son I have been tempted by books about local folklore (North West Highlands), fairy dogs, the supernatural, Conon Doyle kind of material, how small communities cope with challenge, e.g. murder in their midst, but basically, underneath I have a dark heart. I like hard hitting gritty novels, psychological dramas that go to the heart of the human experience and existentialism. I particularly like protagonists (and antagonists) with particular character types, stoical, narcissistic, in the face of unrelenting challenge, dominance or a cry for freedom. I have chosen the following from which to best select three books which best meet the criteria in the brief: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, The Road by Cormac McArthy, The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962 during major changes in the way the mentally ill were treated (warehoused) in the US and the UK. Set and shot in an actual psychiatric hospital (Oregon State Hospital), it explores institutional processes dominating individualistic values, in the way some psychiatric settings sought to de-individualise or dehumanise. The use of major psychotropic and sedative drugs to control behaviour was widespread in psychiatric care, described as ‘the chemical cosh’. Kesey himself took LSD and was involved in the CIA mind control programme (MK-Ultra). The characters are ‘acutes’ and ‘chronics’! As a psychiatric social worker it influenced my thinking of how systems control and abuse. The indomitable Murphy (played by Jack Nicholson in the 1975 movie) sought to use the system to his own ends, but it gets him in the end when he is given a lobotomy. The movie, of course was a major success (best everything that year!), completely eclipsing the book.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Published in 2006, The Road is ultimately about survival of a father and his son in a post-apocalyptic, ash-covered, lifeless America, in a desperate quest of making it south before winter. This is the profoundly moving story of the journey and the father’s determination to beat the environment which is determined to kill them. The Road boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but with the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation. The Road is terrifying, but also beautiful and tender. The man and the boy exist in a setting devoid of hope and life. The Road affirms the belief in the pricelessness of the here and now and warns us now of how much we have to loose. Totally redolent with our current crises.

L’Etranger (France), The Outsider (UK), The Stranger (US)

L’Étranger is a 1942 novel with English translations. I suppose it falls into the category of a classic but not I think given the importance it deserves. Written in two parts it explores the protagonist Meursault’s nihilistic stoicism in the face of a society which perceives his lack of emotion over his mother’s death and his lack of remorse over his murder of ‘the Arab’ as reason to introduce him to Madam Guillotine. Even in his defence he never says more than he genuinely feels and refuses to conform to society’s demands. He is lectured on the afterlife but screams there is no existence but this one, that all people are equally privileged and condemned. Prior to his execution he feels rid of hope and is happy and thinks he need only be accompanied by cries of hate to feel less alone. 

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

I’ve always been interest in Gothic, duality, and psychological mystery, especially in a historical setting. Set in early eighteenth-century Scotland, the plot concerns Wringhim, a staunch Calvinist who believes he is guaranteed salvation and justified in killing those he believes are already damned by God. Many of the events of the novel are narrated twice; by the ‘editor’, who gives his account of the facts and then in the words of the ‘sinner’ himself. The stranger assures the boy that no sin can affect the salvation of a chosen person. Convinced of this truth, and now beyond all normal moral constraints, Wringhim is seduced into murder and other crimes. So, here is the dilemma later posed in existentialist literature, e.g. Dostoevsky and Camus. If there is no God, if there are no ethics, then the strong can do and act as they will.

The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart

Described on release in 1971 as the cult classic that will change your life, where you make your decisions based on the roll of a dice – ‘let the dice decide’! This is the philosophy that changes the life of bored psychiatrist Luke Rhinehart where it was not clear whether the book was fiction or autobiographical. The protagonist is completely nihilistic and narcissistic who starts consulting with the dice for everything, every single decision. So he became a random man. A man without pattern, without habit, without self, without ego., totally unpredictable.

Thanks Tom for some great choices!

The Son came out yesterday and you can get it here.


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