SMOKEHEADS

Written by Doug Johnstone

Review written by Calum MacLeod

Calum MacLeod is a reporter for the Inverness Courier and had been writing for SHOTS since its early days. In 2009 the Highland and Islands Media Awards' judging panel awarded him “Highly Commended Feature Writer of the Year”.


SMOKEHEADS
Faber & Faber
RRP: £12.99
Released: 3rd March 2011
Pbk Original

REMEMBER what I was saying about a fictional crime spree on Scottish islands when we reviewed Peter May’s "The Blackhouse"?

Well, May’s Lewis, Louise Welsh’s Lismore or Anne Cleeves’ Shetland have nothing on Johnstone’s Islay when it comes to rural paranoia.

The plot is easily summed up. Four old university friends, who appear to have little in common beyond their appreciation of malt whisky, come to Islay for a tour of its famed distilleries only to fall foul of the natives.

Described, Hollywood pitch style as a cross between wine tour comedy "Sideways" and "The Wicker Man", a closer relation would be those grainy 1970s movies where a bunch of outsiders, vacationing city folk or horny kids, wind up in some one horse desert town where the horse has probably been killed and eaten and really get on the locals’ bad side.

It even has the moonshine angle as Johnstone’s hapless quartet of insecure whisky anorak, loud mouthed banker, enigmatic self-made man and regular working drone stumble over an illegal still, with the corrupt sheriff here replaced by an island bobby who treats Islay as his personal fiefdom. So naturally he is not going to be best pleased when whisky nut Adam gets interested in his ex-wife.

The careful character building is set aside as Johnstone’s heroes are caught up in a frantic struggle for survival, leaving no room for their concerns about whisky or maturity issues.

Nice to see the Scottish literary tradition of outdoor adventure also gets a nod when two characters watch Hitchcock’s "The Thirty-Nine Steps" on TV, reflecting the hair’s breadth escapes and chases across a snowy landscape in Johnstone’s own novel, though Johnstone and his confidence lacking heroes owe more to Iain Banks than John Buchan and the ending is a little flat given the mayhem that goes before.

Still, not at all a bad yarn to settle down over with a nice glass of Laphroaig — just to stimulate the right atmosphere you understand.

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