With Smokeheads, rather than the regrettable marijuana related hi-jinks I was expecting, the plot revolves around four university friends who reunite for a trip to Islay, the remote Scottish island renowned the world over for its splendid whiskies. Naturally, they end up in all sorts of bother. Doug Johnstone provides us with a grand yarn the like of which is rarely seen, more so in terms of the plot than in the actual execution, since this sort of murder and mayhem is the last thing one would expect in such a setting and among such people. Yet the narrative is well-paced and mainly credible, allowing us entry into this world of madness and intoxication.
Indeed, the book’s main strength is the whiskey element; it’s endlessly endearing and opens up the humanity of the characters, concentrating upon the small pleasures of life and allowing the author to share his obvious enthusiasm for the golden nectar. The reader feels invited into a locals-only lock-in, the scene and setting granting us access to a secret world. In a way, the whiskey itself becomes a character in the novel, a mentor pressing the main players ever onward. The four mates are an unlikely bunch, well-illustrating the manner in which those who effortlessly become friends at an earlier age can often end up inhabiting entirely different worlds. Whereas our “in”, main protagonist Adam Strachan, is a likeable hangdog who we hope to see pull through, his former friend and current drinking buddy Roddy is expressly set up to fail. A high-earning investment fund manager, he’s as smarmy as they come, and it’s a howl to witness him burn through friendships and sympathy on a coke-fuelled rampage across the island. Luke The Bohemian and Ethan The Average Guy make up the party and provide a fine tempering influence on the other two, counteracting Adam’s anxiety and Roddy’s bullishness in a satisfying manner. It’s a well-paced, engrossing read, and the characters are just sympathetic (or irritating) enough that you never feel any real drag. There is the occasionally crass sentimentality to certain thoughts which go through Adam’s mind: “this struggle for survival would tether them to each other until the grave”, yet for the main part such elements are easily put aside.
As the plot develops and the island villains show their true faces, a hefty dose of the old suspension of disbelief is necessary, though never to the point where disgust takes over after one liberty too many is taken. In fact, it’s all a lot of fun: these types do exist, and situations like these certainly do take place. The atmospheric touches to Islay life along with the character of the local people and settings adds a nice spark and draws the reader in like a wood fire on a winter’s night. Yet unfortunately it’s merely a touch; this could have been explored more deeply and concertedly. Madcap scenes of violence and pandemonium in the latter stages are occasionally let down by a flippant humour which isn’t quite plausible given the horrific nature of certain situations. In the novel’s defence, this sarcastic, rough-around-the-edges humour is a constant throughout and it is generally peppered with pleasing linguistic devices to cajole even the most demanding of readers.
Around the halfway mark, matters begin to unravel somewhat. As the plot reaches its apex, a string of unlikely coincidences becomes difficult to credit. A hostage/kidnap situation gets a bit too Die Hard for this reviewer’s liking and things are by now a touch too obviously signposted. The author still has a certain something, a little extra that stokes the fires and keeps the pages turning… which is precisely what’s so frustrating about this novel; right at the high point it becomes untenable. The cold-blooded random killing of a man in an explicitly violent way in front of his friends would elicit more than mere exclamations of shock. There would be havoc, vomiting, wide-eyed delirium. The plot gets extremely, viscerally gory towards the latter part of the narrative, and those with stomachs of anything less than cast iron will surely feel a twinge or two as the plot continues to fall apart. By the end, descriptions seem somewhat lacksadaisical, a drudge through loose ends. What’s more, with the quantity our protagonist is drinking he’d certainly pass out.
The finale feels forced and pointless, farcical and almost silly, unlikely characters cast in roles of heroism, stoically imparting sense and moral wisdom to the reader when at this point it’s hard to feel anything other than “who cares…?”. This would have best been left as it was in the middle, perhaps elevated to the level of a grim conspiracy in the Wicker Man style or suspended in mystery. Instead, I’m left with a similar feeling to watching a dog eat its own vomit. Why does such a harsh note enter an otherwise positive reading experience? Frankly, this book is far better than the previous comment may seem to indicate, and it’s only because the narrative had reached such alluring highs that it ultimately feels like such a let-down. Smokeheads is a high-spirited, vicious romp through Scotland’s whiskey soaked, peat-fired distilleries, and while it’s amusing enough, Doug Johnstone’s best is certainly yet to come.