Four thirty something friends head to the Scottish island of Islay for a weekend of drug taking and whisky tasting. Friends since their university days, it was a mutual passion for whisky that brought them together but since then their lives have taken different paths. Brash, confident Roddy makes a fortune working in futures; Luke, the quiet one, is a musician who records film soundtracks; happily married Ethan works for the Royal Bank of Scotland; and Adam sells tacky souvenirs (and the odd bottle of Scotch) to tourists in a shop on the Royal Mile. For three of the lads this is a party weekend, a chance to let of steam and get steaming drunk, but one of them has an ulterior motive for the trip.
The weekend starts with a bang when their hire car is stopped by the local police, two hard-cases who don't take kindly to the fellas from the city but let them off with a warning, or rather a threat. At the first distillery they visit Adam, who knows Islay well, catches up with Molly, a guide who he's met before on several occasions. She agrees to meet up with Adam and others in the pub that evening for some drinks. When she gets there the party is in full swing with Roddy having scored with a local barmaid who happens to be Molly's younger sister but things turn nasty with the arrival of Molly's ex-husband, one of the policemen who stopped the lads earlier that day.
The following day the group, accompanied by Molly, drive out to an isolated part of the island where Adam explains why he's asked them to come to Islay. What he has to say doesn't go down too well with some the group and with tempers reaching breaking point, a terrible accident occurs, an accident that quickly turns into a nightmare.
Easily summed up as a cross between Deliverance and The Wicker Man, 'Smokeheads' is flattered by the label "novel", especially as the short chapters of large typeface are punctuated by large expanses of empty paper. It's a novella at best but one that packs one heck of a punch. Admittedly it starts a little slowly but even then the writing is good and the tension builds brilliantly as it gradually becomes apparent that the friendships may not be as solid as they first appear. When things do kick off the pace is relentless and the short chapters only emphasise that feeling of breathlessness and suspense.
Johnstone has pretty much torn up the rule book when it comes to writing fiction. The main characters aren't very likeable and in very quickly developing some while letting others remain sketchy, he sends strong signals about what lies ahead. Smokeheads is the name that the people of Islay use to describe the city dwellers that come to tour the island's distilleries and with this subject Johnstone has an instant readership. While his descriptions of the Islay malts are written with obvious passion and skill, they do dominate the opening section and detract from the story. The effect is that the first third of 'Smokeheads' is slightly stilted in tone which is a shame as when he gets going, Johnstone writes easily as well as other 'tartan noir' authors such as Christopher Brookmyre.
Despite the problems 'Smokeheads' works. Get past the first third and the excitement kicks in. The humour is very, very dark and is the chief reason that Johnstone gets away with the implausibility of the plot. The short chapters and economic prose have the pages turning effortlessly and each new twist has the adrenaline pumping. The events become increasingly violent and there's plenty of gore but Johnstone takes us through peaks and troughs which heightens the shock; it's clever stuff.
The character of Roddy is monstrously overblown while Adam is insipid in comparison. I liked the idea of the characters having jobs that put them at odds but, on the other hand, cementing the story so firmly in the current economic crisis will only date the novel in the future which is a shame as the basic story is timeless. One thing Johnstone does convey well is the friendship between the four lads; initially he paints a picture of a loyal bunch of mates who've managed to remain friends in spite of the different directions they've taken, but before long there are signs that all is not what it seems, lending an interesting underlying dynamic to the story.
For all its faults - and they are numerous - 'Smokeheads' is a great read; horribly funny, stomach-churningly bloody and highly entertaining. If you aren't a whiskey drinker to start with, you'll be reaching for a wee dram by the time you finish.