First published in March of 2011, Scottish author (cum freelance journalist, songwriter and musician) Doug Johnstone’s third novel ‘Smokeheads’ is certainly a well-targeted and well-marketed novel for whisky enthusiasts alike.

DLS Synopsis:
In the midst of another bleak Scottish winter, whisky enthusiast Adam has arranged a long weekend trip to the remote Scottish island of Islay, for him and three of his ex-university mates.  Now in their late-thirties, the four of them were originally brought together by their joint love of good whisky.  Now, they have a glorious weekend ahead of them upon an island that is world famous for its single malts.

Together with Adam the group consist of Roddy (a fund manager with the looks, the charm, the wealth, the ego and an almost endless supply of coke), Ethan (a family man who has grown away from the relative trivialities of alcohol-soaked weekends such as this) and Luke (a quietly spoken musician and soundtrack artist).

Upon arriving at the island their first port of call is the Laphroaig distillery where Adam meets up once again with the tour guide there named Molly.  The two have met on a few occasions over the years and their growing friendship quickly blossoms.

After another stop, this time at the Ardberg distillery, the group are in the mood for a night out at the local pub.  However, just when things between Adam and Molly are developing, in walks Molly’s ex-husband – Joe together with his idiot sidekick Grant (both who are part of the island’s local police force).

Not before long a fight breaks out between the two groups, leaving the four lads barred from the pub and Adam with a bloody nose.  However, all is not lost for Adam, after he escorts Molly back to her home, where upon they stay up late drinking whisky and discussing Adam’s plans to open up his own distillery on the island.

The next day Adam and Molly take the other three out to an old abandoned farm which Adam has already marked as the potential spot for his distillery.  He just needs to convince Roddy to invest a sizeable chunk of cash (i.e £1m) into the venture and he’d be well on his way to getting it all set up.

But his hopes are soon to fall to misery when all of a sudden Roddy crashes their car after a heated argument about money.  Stranded in the middle of nowhere, with bitterly cold snow covering the landscape and not a soul within miles; luck is certainly running out for them.  That is until they see the light not too far off.  A light that could be their rescue…or could just plummet them even further into hell…

DLS Review:
The novel is certainly a cleverly targeted one.  Its instant appeal to whisky enthusiasts (like myself) brings in an instant audience – without even needing to really elaborate on the storyline.  Released when Islay whiskies are suddenly seeing a resurgence in popularity; this is certainly a well-timed, well-targeted and well-marketed novel.

Johnstone’s writing style is instantly likeable – flowing with a light-ease and a delightfully bold presence that encapsulates the mood and location of the book perfectly.  The writing itself is so very Scottish, let alone the subject matter and remote location.

The tale begins with a slow pace, with not a great deal really happening for a while, other than submersing the reader into the wonderful world of whisky – particularly the peaty and smoky Islay whiskies.  Here Johnstone slips in sudden barrages of tasting notes, many of which are clearly pinched from current whisky guides by the likes of Ian Buxton, Jim Murray or the late Michael Jackson.  Yes, perhaps this is just pandering to the audience of whisky lovers reading the book; or indeed a way for the author to stamp his mark of knowledge of whisky within the book.  Whatever the reason, it’s an indulgence that we as a reader can quickly forgive – mostly because it just makes you want to pour yourself a good dram of whisky then and there.

Johnstone does spend an awful lot of time setting the scene, laying down the plot and the premise.  However, once that’s done and the novel swerves towards the group’s downfall, things quickly start heating up.  Now we see Johnstone building on the tension with every page.  The atmosphere becoming almost palpable and wrought with constant danger.

From a relatively serene tale, the novel suddenly twists into a fast-paced, adrenaline-fuelled thriller with desperation for survival as the tale’s driving thrust.  Indeed, the storyline quickly starts to slip towards heavier and heavier degrees of violence, until suddenly the reader is thrown amongst visceral depictions of somewhat surprising levels of gore.

The storyline skilfully keeps up this chaotic pace for chapter after chapter after chapter, until it slowly begins to wind itself down again.  The grand finale comes rather early on, leaving the ending to meander around the loose ends until everything is eventually wrapped up tightly (leaving a mild possibility for a potential sequel).

The strength of the novel (aside from the heavy whisky influence) is in its characterisation of the key individuals and their natural response to the increasingly traumatic dilemma.  Each one of the characters seems very human with very real personalities and traits.  Admittedly, the likes of Luke and Ethan are pushed aside a little for the more dominating characters of Roddy or our principal character Adam.  But still there is as much warmth to these characters as there is to the author’s obvious passion for whisky.

All in all, the novel is a fast paced and whisky-laced ride across the remote Scottish island of Islay; with plenty of thrills and bloodshed to keep the adrenaline pumping.  The storyline does suffer somewhat from a prolonged beginning and closure, but nothing which will really drag the tale down too considerably.

The novel runs for a total of 291 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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