Double Proof: A whisky cocktail laced with chaos

Gill Sherry

Prior to my chat with local author, Martin Stewart, I’d read his recently released debut crime novel, Double Proof. The protagonist, Robbie Gould, is introduced to readers wearing a dressing gown, a plastic rain bonnet and a pair of slippers, as he drinks tea from a pink mug. The image instantly puts a smile on my face. It’s a smile that remains until the very last chapter. I love it when a book does that!

Originally from Glasgow’s southside, Martin moved to Ayrshire and taught English at James Hamilton Academy in Kilmarnock before transferring to Kyle Academy in Ayr where he remained for over five years. But he’d always wanted to be a full-time author, so when he signed his first book deal, he left teaching behind.

“I’d been wanting to do this for more than ten years,” Martin tells me. “I retained my teaching registration so I can go back to teaching – I still do a lot of work in schools – but I had to take the chance. Riverkeep came out in 2016.”

Riverkeep is a book for young adults and was followed by The Sacrifice Box, published in 2018.

“I thought they would want a sequel to Riverkeep but they wanted something totally different. So I did The Sacrifice Box, an 80’s comedy horror, which the publishers weren’t sure about… until Stranger Things came out. But I had written it ahead of Stranger Things, I would like to point that out!”

Martin’s third book, The Wild Hunts Boys, was published in 2021 but although it launched in America, Canada and the Philippines, it was never released in the UK.

“It was during lockdown,” Martin surmises, “and nothing was happening.”

What did happen during lockdown, though, was that Martin completed the first of his Bridget Vanderpuff books (he went on to write three more in the series) as well as his first adult crime novel, Double Proof.

“There is a space within the Tartan Noir of Scottish crime for that high energy, funny tone,” he says of switching genre to adult crime fiction, “and that was what I always expected to write.”

I ask him, for the benefit of those who haven’t yet read it, to sum up Double Proof in a nutshell.

“It’s a missing person case. There is a kidnapping. There is a valuable hoard of whisky which has turned up. There’s a court case, and there are lots of gangsters. What I wanted was a sort of chaos: gangsters from Japan, Scottish gangsters, whisky, YouTubers… and just this sort of melee from which Gould would ultimately emerge.”

But where did the idea come from?

“Ideas are the easiest bit of the process,” he declares. “It’s actually turning up and doing the work that’s the hard bit! I can’t remember any particular sort of genesis for the Gould story but I remember reading about a bottle of whisky that had sold in Sotheby’s in New York for £1.6 million or something like that… and whisky was a way to get into writing about Scottish crime. I didn’t want Gould to be a policeman because I didn’t want to write that kind of story. And I wanted to really enjoy it. I love doing research, but I didn’t want that to be about the procedure of the Scottish police force.”

Having read the book, I think that’s what makes it so refreshingly different. The fact that Robbie Gould is a normal guy (if you can call an alleged psychic ‘normal’), and that it’s so far away from the traditional detective fiction.

“The wagon to which I’d mentally hitched myself at the start, to explain to myself what I was trying to achieve, was that I wanted to write a slightly more cynical Glaswegian Big Lebowski… that’s why he’s in his dressing gown at the start. I think elements of the book are deliberately Baroque. If you filmed how much physical punishment he takes, it would be absolutely ridiculous! But I find that kind of stuff fun. I’m wanting him to be away from the more procedural space.”

Well, he certainly achieved what he set out to do, and the result is a fast-paced, amusing, thoroughly entertaining read. But I must ask… why Japanese gangsters? Why not Italian Mafioso or the Medellin Cartel?

“The whisky connection between Scotland and Japan is really strong. Especially in the north of Japan, the climate is similar to Scotland, it would produce a very similar product. The founder of Japanese whisky came to Scotland to study whisky. He did apprenticeships in three distilleries in Scotland and studied chemistry at the University of Glasgow. He married a girl from Kirkintilloch, Rita, and the two of them went back to Japan. He founded Nikka Whisky. It has Scottish roots, so that link really made sense.”

But there was, I learn, another reason for choosing Japan.

“On a personal level… what I’m really hoping is that the book gets picked up for translation into Japanese and I’ll get to go a literary festival! It’s the dream of my life to go to Japan. It’s the place I would most like to go in the world. I’m playing a very long game!”

I can’t help but think that is a distinct possibility. Martin worked with a translator for the Japanese text in Double Proof to ensure it was both authentic and respectful.

“He also did a cultural translation for me,” Martin explains. “The only scene that is set in Japan is outside the airport in Tokyo and it’s on a bus. I had the bus driver doing his announcement saying ‘It’s 40 minutes, it’s no smoking, the toilet’s out of order…’ and my translator said: ‘No, the toilets are never out of order.’ I love that. He was invaluable to what I was trying to achieve.”

So can we expect more from Robbie Gould?

He shrugs his shoulders elaborately before answering: “It’s not in my control. The publisher bought the completed book. My agent asked for some more Robbie ideas so I gave her a couple. As a character, you could just turn a key in his back and send him into almost any number of situations. I think, as a reader of characters like that, you get that anticipatory thrill where you know he’s just going to stuff things up. So I have an almost unlimited number of situations in which I would gleefully throw Robbie and I’m hoping I get the chance to do it. I think it’s highly possible.”

In the meantime, will he write more young adult fiction?

“I really value being able to do both. I’m very grateful for that opportunity. If I could do both, I would be absolutely thrilled.”

And there’s something else he’s thrilled about…

“I’m not from Ayrshire. I moved here and I love being able to buy into where I live. So I’m the writer in residence of Friends of the Broadway, Prestwick. I’m going to be getting involved with the schools in Prestwick in that capacity. It’s fantastic, it’s something I didn’t expect to be doing and I love it.”

Double Proof is available to purchase, as are Martin’s other books, from Amazon, Waterstones and other good book shops.