The Caithness coast. Winter 1745. Rebellion year.
A half-mad earl witnesses a murder. But seeing the appalling decision the killer had taken leads him to invent his ‘game of life’ – The Prisoner’s Dilemma – and he writes to his old friend, David Hume, inviting him to his ancient stronghold to explore its meaning.
Hume is only too pleased to go. He has just met Adam Smith and the two of them have disagreed about man’s instinct for survival - and how compassion can exist in a world driven by self-interest.
But before Hume’s discussions with the earl can begin, two strangers arrive from Prussia who will turn their lives upside down – and attract the attentions of the English army. As the pace of the story quickens to a claustrophobic climax, the greatest questions of the age sluice wildly about the action and people find themselves driven relentlessly towards their destinies in love and betrayal, ambition and failure and, eventually, in life and death.
But as the secrets of game theory unfold the characters’ motivations, and their deceits and feints are laid bare, a simpler story is exposed– it is the compelling tale of three utterly ruthless men, each of whom is determined to win for himself the love of an extraordinary woman.
Who will win? And why?
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
The Prisoner’s Dilemma By Sean Stuart O’Connor
January 13, 2014 Susan Heywood
Set in the remote, harsh landscape of the Scottish Highlands, this fast paced historical thriller, The Prisoner’s Dilemma, draws on the charged politics of the mid-1700s. The ruling Hanoverians faced a resurgent threat to the English throne, in the form of the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, the charismatic “Bonnie Prince Charlie”. The newly incumbent German monarchs had good reason to fear the recurring challenge from an ousted royal line that many believed to have greater legitimacy and which enjoyed the backing of the volatile Scottish clans; the Jacobite followers of the Stuart claimant had risen up against King George I in 1715. Lingering support for James Edward Stuart, son of the deposed James II and father of Charles Edward, fuelled the crown’s paranoid suspicion of Scottish treachery.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an absorbing first novel by Sean Stuart O’Connor, a former high flier in business and finance. His central protagonist is an eccentric and obsessive Scottish earl, the laird of Dunbeath, a scholarly and choleric recluse who takes time out from his study of the night skies to devise a philosophical “game of life”, the so-called Prisoner’s Dilemma. The writer constructs a tense drama of intrigue, conspiracy and ambition, tempered by a learned, extended philosophical discourse and enlivened by a complicated and ultimately tragic love triangle. The interplay between these three elements dictates the pace of the narrative and I must confess that at times I found myself hoping that the esoteric moral discussion would be cut short by an early return to the thrilling story that was unfolding alongside. In fact, the moral debate, which explores the benefits of social cooperation versus competition, is reflected in the eventful narrative where the characters act out their destinies.
The writer handles the interface between debate and action with considerable skill and his chosen structure allows him to round out each character with conviction. Credence and depth are amplified by introducing historical persons alongside his more fictionalised characters. Such is the case for the Scottish economist Adam Smith, for David Hume, the advocate of empiricism, and for the young Emmanuel Kant, later to become a leading thinker of the German Enlightenment, and brother to the beautiful and erudite Sophie. Dispatched from Konigsberg (now Russian Kalliningrad) with the astute, tough Captain Zweig in order to discharge her father’s debt, Sophie becomes a pivotal figure in the human drama and articulates a moving case for social behaviour founded in cooperation and compassion. The ship carrying Sophie and Zweig (and a dubious cargo) founders on the coast of Caithness alongside the castle redoubt of Earl Dunbeath, who is busy developing his game theory and unravelling the mystery of longitude. His equilibrium is disturbed by their arrival and as the story unfolds, and Hume, Smith and the sadistic Colonel L’Arquen , commander of the English military, are drawn into the story, circumstances will oblige the two rivals to replace initial hostility with friendship, despite a desperate contest for Sophie’s affection.
The “Troubles” of 1745 were the culmination of the Jacobite rebellion and a turning point for the future of the unity of the realm, which had been brought together by James I, formerly James VI of Scotland, in 1603, following the death of Elizabeth I. In the light of the current discussion about Scottish independence, it is timely to consider what might otherwise have been. This fine first novel captures both the political and the intellectual fervour of the period, when the quest for a rational explanation of the universe and a dispassionate morality based on equity and consensus, could still be thrown off course by the unpredictable power of love.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma by Sean Stuart ‘O’Connor is available direct from the publisher, Zero Books: www.zerobooks.net or from Amazon.
~ Sue Heywood, www.platform505.com
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is a thought-provoking treasure trove of ideas wrapped up in a good enough yarn to turn any reader to philosophical thought. However makeshift the foundations of my brain, I feel I am the wiser for this book and I hope it will only be the first step on Sean O’Connor’s new path as a novelist. ~ ANABEL LOYD, Telegraph India
What a great first novel...a real pleasure to read ~ William Boyd, Best-selling novelist, and screenwriter