Doug Johnstone: Whisky Galore, And A Wee Bit More

<strong>Doug Johnstone</strong>'s third novel, <strong>Smokeheads</strong>, is a thriller set on the island of Islay, whisky's spiritual home

Feature by Keir Hind | 03 Mar 2011

Doug Johnstone laughs when I ask what his relationship with whisky is, saying “A good one!” Fair point. Smokeheads isn’t one of those books that crams detail down your throat, but it does manage to be about the whisky business on Islay to some extent. “I’d been to Islay before,” says Johnstone “but I went back to do ‘research’ in inverted commas. It struck me as an interesting mix, because it’s got 9 distilleries and a tourist industry, but there’s only 3000 people on the island.” This therefore provides an excellent setting for a thriller, an enclosed place with a unique selling point.

Johnstone’s story is about a group of four friends in their late 30s who go on a whisky tasting trip to Islay, where things spiral out of control after they have a major disagreement. “Of the novels I’ve written,” says the author “it’s the furthest away from people I’ve known, or just met. All three of my novels have male protagonists who have little control over their own lives.” That’s certainly the case here. “A lot of the stuff I’m interested in is ‘what if’” says Johnstone, “because it’s interesting to put yourself in the situation of what if your life had taken a different turn, and that gives an immediate affinity with the character.”

The book is largely plot-based, but the most interesting thing is that there are hidden details, hints about characters that are either not followed up because the plot turns another way, or hidden so far beneath the surface that they’re hard to see. When I ask about this, Johnstone partially agrees. “I love the idea of trying to combine a real page turner and trying to have stuff after the surface. Some people can read it for the story, but others will pick up details,” he says. But he follows this up with “I think it’s interesting to sneak stuff in under the radar, but I was primarily interested in writing a thriller.”

And it is a good thriller. Without spoiling too much, the notion of illegal whisky stills plays a large part in the plot. Johnstone admits that this was mostly invented, because he couldn’t find any trace of real illegal stills, though he did try. “In Ireland it’s absolutely rife. Everybody knows someone who can get you some Poitín. It’s somehow died out in Scotland, but apparently years ago there was 2-3 times as much illegal whisky as legal on Islay.” If anyone hears anything, let us know.

Still, thrillers come and go, but this one does have a little extra nip, and for my money it’s because there’s a depth to this book it didn’t necessarily need. Though Johnstone says that he “wanted to look at whisky after I saw Sideways, and read the book, but at the same time I was reading a lot of thrillers and thought I’d combine the two”, he’s smuggled in more character and nuance than that might suggest, which is the real strength of the book. He says, “All my books have examined bits of the Scottish psyche, and whisky is one of those dual things where we’re proud of it and yet we worry about the impact of it.” It’s this kind of thought process that appears absent from regular (or, say ‘airport’) thrillers. And, without going into laboured whisky metaphor, it’s the blend of thought with plot and action that makes this book a cut above your average page turner.

Smokeheads is released on 3 Mar. Published by Faber, cover price £12.99