What Are We Drinking?

Having enjoyed his previous 2 books, ‘Tombstoning’ and ‘The Ossians’ I took the chance at last week’s Lyrical Deathmatch show to pick up an advance copy of Doug Johnstone’s latest novel ‘Smokeheads’.

Like his previous efforts, ‘Smokeheads’ is a Scottish based thriller this time with a backdrop of the whisky industry in Isla. Four ex-university friends, still acquainted only by their mutual love of a good malt, meet up for a weekend to take a whisky tour of the island – with disastrous consequences.

Once the groundwork has been set in establishing the characters, ‘Smokeheads’ takes off as a desperate, compelling thriller, which you feel obligated to keep reading despite the random violence and various horrific misfortunes the author inflicts on our central cast of characters. In this regard ‘Smokeheads’ is not unlike the mid-section of Christopher Brookmyre’s last novel ‘Pandaemonium’ – unrelenting and not for the squeamish.

And it’s very much an honest thriller too. Johnstone gleefully wreaks havoc with the lives of pretty much all his characters in the course of the book and by the end there’s precious little in the way of redemtpion. Sure, some characters may survive to the end but by that time they are undoubtedly damaged goods.

However the bleakness of the story is at least partially offset by some jet black humour running through the dialogue not least when the group of friends are being held captive by the local island psycho.

When I wrote about ‘Tombstoning’ I felt that the setting and characters were far more believable than the thriller element. Curiously, I get the opposite feeling about ‘Smokeheads’.

The thriller element is skilfully handled and Johnstone manages to convey the desperation that his group face in trying to cover evidence of their presence at a scene of carnage. Yet whilst the natural breakdown in relationships over a 20 year period is credibly portrayed it’s difficult to care much about any of the characters as they are either dislikeable or barely sketched out.

Adam is the central character – like David from ‘Tombstoning’ he’s an underachiever who seems to have his chance to finally put his life on track. But he loses the reader’s sympathy when his actions directly lead to the downward spiral of his group.

Another of the principals, Roddy, is almost a caricature, a loathsome merchant banker, who frankly does nothing in the course of the book to make himself any more likeable.

Despite these flaws ‘Smokeheads’ is still a visceral thriller and a cracking read which will fill up a couple of evenings.

Buy it here or in your local bookshop.