Saturday, 26 March 2011


My initial thought on the title was that a ‘Smokehead’ must be a pot-smoker or a poorly organised pyromaniac. It turns out to be a term for someone who’s in love with the malt-whiskies of the Isle of Islay.

The book tells the tale of a group of 4 middle-aged men who share a love of the brown nectar. They’re taking a tour of Islay to get as many tastes of the hard stuff as they can manage. We have Adam (whisky taster extraordinaire), Roddy (coke-snorting live life to the full millionaire), Luke (enigmatic musician and loner) and Ethan (Mr Average).

The book opens on a cliff-hanger, with our protagonist falling through the ice into a frozen lake. We know immediately that he’s in trouble - damned if he gets out and drowned if he doesn’t. It certainly grabbed my attention from the off.

The story then steps back and tells us how he ended up there.

Adam has a plan to change his life from the mundane to the exciting by persuading Roddy to invest in a remote, old still. In the meantime Adam finds himself hoping to rekindle the odd spark with Molly, a local whisky expert, who last time they met was married to Joe.

Unfortunately for Adam, Joe still carries a torch for his ex and is keen to use it to ignite the odd fire of his own. Worse, he’s the hard man of the local police force and has more than the odd screw loose.

Having encountered the charm of a small community, they soon discover the drawbacks of being outsiders.

Following a car accident, life for the whisky tourists is never going to be the same ever again.
By the time I got back to the frozen loch scene I was almost as exhausted as the characters, not having had the chance to rest since the off. The good news was that the resolution to the cliff-hanger is only a new beginning and there’s still plenty that remains unresolved.

I feel that Doug Johnstone’s work is at its best when taking us through action scenes (and there are plenty of them). He raises the temperature by degree so that it becomes increasingly uncomfortable (no boiling frogs here). He also has a great knack of taking his characters from extreme situations and surprising them with things that aren’t so much left-field as Outer Limits.

By the end of the book, I realised that I didn’t actually like any of the main characters. I’m not sure I’d want to spend much time with them, but I’d certainly buy them a drink to steady their nerves and to wipe out their memory banks – that would be the compassionate thing to do.

I’d recommend this to fans of fast-paced action, quality writing, thrilling and unexpected twists, harsh landscapes and those who like a little bit of black humour. I guess it’s also a must for any smokeheads out there.

Excellent stuff.



  1. "Good whiskey never let's you lose your place." (Johnny Lee in Cherokee Fiddle)