Guest Post: Book review of “Smokeheads” by Doug JohnstoneApril 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
“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?