Source: Audiobook review copy
Publication: 1ST December 2022 from Isis Audio
Narrator: Angus King
Listening time: 7 hours and 25 minutes
Four friends. One weekend. Gallons of whisky. What could go wrong?
Driven by amateur whisky-nut Adam, four late-thirties ex-university mates are heading to Islay—the remote Scottish island world famous for its single malts—with a wallet full of cash, a stash of coke and a serious thirst.
Over a weekend soaked in the finest cask strength spirit, they meet young divorcee Molly, who Adam has a soft spot for, her little sister Ash who has all sorts of problems and Molly’s ex-husband Joe, a control freak who also happens to be the local police. As events spiral out of control, they are all thrown into a nightmare that gets worse at every turn.
I’m a fan of Doug Johnstone’s writing and so I jumped at the chance to listen to a book of his that I haven’t yet read and I must say, Smokeheads was right up my street. It’s Johnstone in sparkling black form but also a Doug Johnstone who knows his whiskies and has clearly put a lot of research into the Islay malts and even I, not the biggest whisky lover, ended up thirsting for a glass of the Bruichladdich.
Set in Islay, a beautiful island and home to many of Scotland’s best peaty malts, Johnstone does a fabulous job of creating the atmospherics of its rugged, fractal coast and the way in which many of the whiskies on the south of the island especially, have a distinctive taste infused with peat smoke, brine and iodine.
Four long standing friends come to Islay for a whisky tour. Adam is harbouring big plans of his own but as yet it is too early to unveil them; he is the whisky expert of the four and has planned their itinerary for the weekend. Roddy is a hedge fund manager. He lives life to the max and runs largely on booze and coke. He has an unattractive macho and somewhat aggressive attitude to women. Luke is a musician and something of a loner, while Ethan is the most settled of the four.
Adam is our guide and storyteller on this trip. In truth these friends don’t have a great deal in common anymore and it is Adam’s enthusiasm for this trip that has got them there.
From the start we know that this trip is going to land the friends in trouble. Roddy is a nightmare and it only takes one visit to the local pub for things to begin to cause grief. From there it is a hop, skip and a jump towards violence, intemperate behaviour and the realisation that there’s very little holding these friends together.
Islanders of course, protect their own and Islay is a place that harbours many secrets. When the boys realise that they have uncovered one such secret they also understand that this puts their lives in danger.
Johnstone uses the wild geography of Islay to enhance the danger and they lads become trapped by the winds and tide, by the rugged environment and by some pretty heinous adversaries. This is a violent tale and no-one will emerge unscathed. There’s something about being trapped on an island, even in the 21st Century, that lends itself well to this kind of writing.
Smokeheads is a dark tale of wrongdoing, spoiled love and fractured friendships, greed and venality. Liberally peppered with sweary words and laden with gore, it is both horrific in places and yet full of black humour.
Angus King proves himself yet again to be a worthy narrator. His own voice is as smooth as the long aged single malt and his tonality and inflection catching well those moments that turn black humour into scathing language and violent moments.
Verdict: a fast moving, violent story that has several ‘squick’ moments. You need to suspend disbelief somewhat but once you do, this is a story that quickly gathers momentum and barrels towards a climactic finish. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Doug Johnstone is the author of fourteen novels, most recently Black Hearts (2022). The Big Chill (2020), was longlisted for the Theakston’s Crime Novel of the Year. Several of his books have been bestsellers and three, A Dark Matter (2020), Breakers (2019) and The Jump (2015), were shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. He’s taught creative writing and been writer in residence at various institutions over the last two decades including festivals, libraries, universities, schools, prisons and a funeral directors. Doug is a Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow and works as a mentor and manuscript assessor for many organisations, including The Literary Consultancy, Scottish Book Trust and New Writing North. He’s been an arts journalist for over twenty years and has also written many short stories and screenplays. He is a songwriter and musician with six albums and three EPs released, and plays drums for the Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers, a band of crime writers. He’s also co-founder of the Scotland Writers Football Club.
Angus King is a Scottish actor based in London & Glasgow. He trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and works regularly on television, Motion Capture and the West End and his voice can be heard in audiobooks, political campaigns, radio drama, corporate videos, computer games, ADR and much more.