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I first encountered Stephen Conroy’s Healing of a Lunatic Boy in 1987 in the landmark exhibition 'Vigorous Imagination: New Scottish Art' at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. The painting was the image chosen for the poster of the exhibition, and I bought a print in the museum shop. It has hung in my office ever since, only replaced in recent years by one of the canvas prints the museum now produces to order. There is no other image I have looked at more in the past 30 years. I never tire of its presence. It has accompanied the writing of more than 30 novels.

Healing of a Lunatic Boy

Healing of a Lunatic Boy 1986

Stephen Conroy (b.1964)

National Galleries of Scotland

I'm not quite sure why I find it so compelling. I suspect it's the mysterious quality of the composition. I don't really understand what's going on in this room, and I'm not sure I would want anyone to provide me with a definitive answer. So often, the most exciting thing about a piece of visual art or poetry or a novel is what's going on in the interstices of what we can make sense of.

In the foreground is the naked body of the presumed 'Lunatic Boy'. He's as white and sexless as a marble statue. Behind him stands a man in a suit and bow tie, one hand to his heart, the other outstretched like an opera singer. His mouth is open; he appears to be delivering some sort of incantation. It always makes me think of a Jewish cantor, for some reason. He's flanked by two figures who seem unconcerned about what's going on. They could almost be the minders of the healer. Behind them, a fourth man stands, most of his face turned away, scrutinising a wall where lines of verse are inscribed. The colours are opulent and seem to glow. The scene is lit as if it were a stage set, though it's hard to imagine what kind of scene could be played out among these men whose connection to each other is impossible to fathom. It's dramatic, it provokes unease and I love its quality of strangeness.

The painting is currently in storage but I was fortunate enough to be allowed to pay it a visit a couple of years ago. It still exerted that peculiar magnetism on me. I wanted to steal it and hang the real thing on my wall...

Val McDermid, crime writer