Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 291 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
I think it’s fair to say that Visit Scotland will never promote Doug Johnstone‘s Smokeheads, a black comedy set on the isle of Islay, as a must read. The story doesn’t exactly make the “Queen of the Hebrides” sound like an attractive place to go on holiday.
Sure, the scenery might be beautiful — all heather, peat bog and windswept coastlines — and the whisky distilleries fascinating — there are eight in total, each with a rich history — but in Johnstone’s novel the roads are dangerous, the cops are crooked and there’s murder and mayhem at every turn. In fact, this is one of the most exciting psychological thrillers I’ve read in a long time.
The main plot goes something like this: four middle-aged men from Edinburgh, all friends from university, visit Islay for a weekend trip in which they plan to visit several distilleries. They are all mad into their whiskies, especially Adam, who is a true “smokehead” — a fan of Islay malts — with a particular skill in “blind tastings”.
But no sooner have Adam, Ethan, Luke and Roddy arrived on the remote Scottish island than they have a run-in with a local policeman. It seems that Roddy, an investment banker with plenty of cash, cocaine and an attitude to match, has driven his top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive Audi a little too fast for this cop’s liking. While he is let off with a warning, it sets the tone for the rest of the weekend, which slides into a series of incidences, each one more reckless and dangerous than the one before it.
By the time the story draws to a close, just 48 hours after arriving on the island, only two of the party depart Islay relatively unscathed. So much for a fun-filled weekend away!
From the first sentence, Johnstone’s relentlessly paced narrative and easy prose style hooks the reader. Initially, you get lulled into thinking this is going to be a typical weekend lads’ trip away — the pubs, the girls, the hangovers — but then events begin to spiral out of control and things turn very dark very quickly.
The narrative is quite in-your-face in places, by which I mean it’s a little bit gruesome — think Reservoir Dogs meets Trainspotting meets The Wicker Man — and definitely not for the faint-hearted. And while the plot is slightly over the top, this is the type of psychological thriller that ambushes you from behind and refuses to let go. I hungrily devoured it in a matter of days.
But what elevates this novel above your usual run-of-the-mill thrillers is Johnstone’s superb characterisation (with the exception of the rogue cop, who is a bit cartoonish) and the way in which he captures the easy banter between old mates out on the tear.
He also has a certain ability to make even those of us who hate whisky hankering after a dram or two, he writes about it so beautifully…