Whisky Advocate

Guest Post: Book review of “Smokeheads” by Doug Johnstone

April 29th, 2011

Jonny McCormick, a regular Malt Advocate features writer shares a review of  Doug Johnstone’s “Smokeheads.”  Will it be the whisky novel you choose for your next vacation?

by Doug Johnstone
Published by Faber & Faber Limited
Available in Hardcover and Kindle versions
291 pages

“Four friends. One weekend. Gallons of whisky. What could go wrong?” asks the cover of Doug Johnstone’s third novel. These thirty-somethings, all former Edinburgh University buddies catch the ferry to Islay anticipating a weekend of great drams and distillery visits. Adam is the main protagonist, a short balding anti-hero with big plans who labors as a retail worker in a whisky shop on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile (and detests its tourist clientele for their whisky naivety). His whisky compadres are Rory, a charmless millionaire fund manager and boorish misogynist and Ethan and Luke, two rather flimsy characters who act more as plot devices than fully-fledged individuals. Taciturn Luke is a stoner musician and you know this because he says the word “man” after most of his dialogue.

During the early chapters the group tour Laphroaig distillery, meeting Molly, a distillery guide whom Adam has met on earlier visits while she was still married and their mutual attraction lingers. Not long after landing on Islay, Rory’s driving attracts the wrath of the local police in the form of Joe, a brutish and corrupt cop and coincidently, Molly’s ex-husband. Without revealing the subsequent plot twists and turns of this Tartan Noir thriller, Adam reveals the pretence under which he’s invited these friends to the island and the scene is set for fallout and mayhem.

The whisky writing is authentic and the guys enjoy sipping a 27 year old single cask Port Ellen on the ferry, a Laphroaig 30 year old, Bruichladdich Deliverance X4 and Laphroaig Quarter cask and from the descriptions of Islay, distilleries and the drams, you trust the author is no stranger to the subject matter. However, amidst the chaos of murder and destruction, there is a moment where Adam and Rory share some preposterously asinine tasting notes which seem excessively crass. As a work of fiction, the plot twists are often heavy-handed and you can see them coming a mile off. The cartoon violence is frequent, bloody and casually grotesque and the swearing is prolific.

I found the stamina and endurance of the characters in Smokeheads (both the good guys and the bad) pushed the limits of plausibility at times, a consequence of the incessant action sequences written with a certain televisual quality. Molly emerges as the strong female lead, cool under pressure unlike Rory who has few redeeming qualities and a relentless cocaine habit (drug use being a topic of Johnstone’s earlier work, The Ossians). However, I enjoyed how the text cleverly manages to convey a sense of fearful claustrophobia to the Oa pennisula, one of the wildest and most remote parts of the island.

Right to the end, the author maintains his grip on the tension which will have you turning the pages to see if they will get away with it all. I would love to know what Ileachs think of the depiction of them and their island. While sharing some genre similarities of gore and pace, Johnstone’s style does not match the comic wit and elements of surprise that marks out Christopher Brookmyre at his best, nor the menacing dark inventiveness of the early Colin Bateman books. However, with malt whisky at its core, this book will make enjoyable summer vacation reading for whisky fans although it’s not going to appeal to everyone.

Tell us, have any of you read this book and what did you think?  Can anyone recommend any other good novels that focus on whisky?

10 Responses to “Guest Post: Book review of “Smokeheads” by Doug Johnstone”

  1. Red_Arremer says:

    Ha– This sounds like a lot of fun! May check it out. Also interested to hear what other readers have thought.

  2. […] Read more from the original book review : Guest Post: Book review of “Smokeheads” by Doug Johnstone | What … […]

  3. […] reading here: Guest Post: Book review of “Smokeheads” by Doug Johnstone | What … […]

  4. bj reed says:

    Yeah, but Ian Rankin and his creation Rebus did more for single malts then any other fiction writer! 🙂

    • Jonny McCormick says:

      Absolutely! A favourite author of mine too. It was always a part of Rebus but never the defining characteristic. I’ll need to have a think about this one, but is there a best Ian Rankin novel from a whisky perspective?

  5. MrTH says:

    If you live in Edinburgh and read Rebus, you might think, “Gee, I don’t know anyone like that here,” and shrug it off. Obviously you don’t know everyone in town, or everything that’s going on, and it’s easy enough to suspend disbelief. Islay’s different, and I suspect the locals will have to file the social aspects of this under Fantasy rather than straight fiction. Hopefully it can be seen as all in good fun, without ruffling any feathers too badly. I like to read novels with a strong geographical presence, and one that gets the weirdness of the Oa can’t be all bad.

  6. The Leveller says:

    Sounds like Sideways set on Islay – not the worst thing, mind…

  7. sam k says:

    Sorry to chime in so late, but there’s an excellent historical novel out by David Liss called “The Whiskey Rebels” that is set in Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion. It’s well researched and compellingly written.

    Though it does not get into distilling minutia, it is essentially a spy novel based on the manufacture of whiskey on the frontier and the effects of its taxation. Figures of interest include Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, and Robert Morris. I was told by an acquaintance who is also an author that I’d put the book down after two days and wonder where those two days went, and he was absolutely right.

    It is incredibly diverse as regards gender, race, politics, and religion, and makes for absorbing reading. As John would say, “Highly recommended!”

  8. […] there was another review of Smokeheads slipped in under the radar recently, on the What Does John Know […]

  9. Jonny McCormick says:

    Smokeheads has had a big drop in price for the Kindle version – only $3.26 today (£1.99 in the UK). Get clicking!

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