‘The true hero of the story – whisky’ – Smokeheads by Doug Johnstone

Here’s a challenge for you. Design a cliched novel.

The Hero: Thirtysomething Guy trapped in a dead-end job, crippled with insecurity and shyness but with a big TOP SECRET [SUBJECT]-related plan to Become Someone, in which he can only be helped by:

The Rich Friend: millionaire, loudmouth, shallow, brazen, coke-addled, self-absorbed, unfaithful;

The Laid-Back Chilled Friend Who Nobody ACTUALLY Knows That Much About And Whose Mysteriousness Will Hold Secrets That Subsequently Impact The Plot;

The Completely Normal Married Friend Who Will No Doubt Play Little Part In The Upcoming Plot;

And of course before we can get to The Plan, there’s the:

Obligatory [SUBJECT]-Related Female Love Interest, for whom our Hero has some unexpressed feelings which of course are reciprocated, bringing him into conflict with:

The Violent Ex-Husband Who Is Also The Local Police Officer And Thus A Law Unto Himself.

A generic plot doesn’t necessarily mean a bad book, though, and as a whisky lover I was keen to visit Islay with Doug Johnstone and see how his characters, stereotypical though they may have been, fared in their travels.

The first problem I ran into with Smokeheads was how unsympathetically Doug Johnstone has defined his lead characters. The main ones, as described above, are all pretty much stereotypical novel characters, yet from an early stage they are characterised so unattractively that it doesn’t provide an impetus to nose further into the book and discover their journey.

I think the immediate issue is that while it’s good to have a main protagonist who is seeking redemption, so that you can HOPE with him through the story – if the character in question is so insecure, unattractive and mired in self-loathing in the first fifty pages it’s tough to connect with enough sympathy to WANT him to succeed.  If I want unsympathetically-crafted characters with few redeeming features and sufficient bad ones to make me dislike them from very early on – I’ll watch an episode of Eastenders.

The plot itself was indeed pretty thin and, sadly, lacked any sort of true buildup, going straight from one issue with the ‘smokeheads’ straight into the main thrust of the story, which was essentially a generic ‘group being pursued by crazy person’ theme. It was made even less believable by one of the protagonists who, despite a large chunk of Audi embedded in his torso and significant blood loss, still found both time and energy to make smart-alec remarks every second or third paragraph. And as I’ve already mentioned, by the time I reached that point in the book I didn’t like the main characters enough to want them to prevail. I kept hoping the Generic Bad Guy would catch and kill them, bringing the book to an end.

There’s also the jump to consider, from a book about dreams of personal redemption to violent action thriller. This could have been a fantastic twist from one genre to another, but the flatness of the writing and the characters meant it lacked the impact it could have had. It also didn’t help that Johnstone telegraphed the upcoming violence like a punch from a drunken Glaswegian.

Johnstone’s action sequences, while pacey, are so lacking in description that they simply blur, leaving the reader hard-pressed to follow what’s going on. A good sequence should allow you to ‘see’ the action on a mental cinema screen – the amount of dialogue and the speed in which everything passed, combined with limited visual cues or description, made that extremely difficult and added to the lack of interest in the plot.

Another disappointment was the lack of colour to the landscape and descriptions. As with the characters, Doug Johnstone has largely ignored the imagery of the Scottish islands, leaving you with little sense of the geography or the breathtaking beauty of the area. It could have therefore been set anywhere, from the Highlands to an Edinburgh council estate, with little difference to the story itself.  

What kept me reading this to the finish, despite my absolute and immediate dislike of the characters and most of the writing, was the love that shone through from Johnstone for the true hero of the story – whisky. Johnstone describes his whiskies with a zest, passion and colour that his humans can’t hope to compete with, bringing an occasional beauty to the prose that would otherwise be missing.

Any Cop?: I can’t help feeling that Doug Johnstone likes whisky considerably more than he likes people – a sentiment I can fully agree with. However, given this he probably shouldn’t have written a novel, and instead should have focused on bringing us a whisky-tasting manual – which would, I can guarantee, have been more excitingly and colourfully written and undoubtedly a more enjoyable read than Smokeheads.

Neil Simmons

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