I was recently a witness at a crime scene. I can’t say much about it, because it’s an ongoing investigation, and because I don’t want to compromise any of the people involved. I can say that thankfully, no-one died. Also, I’m grateful to say that no-one in my family or circle of friends was involved.
With that background, one of the striking things about the scene, both at the time of the incident and later, was the smell of the blood. To be candid, it’s still with me. And no, I promise this post will not be a long list of books where the smell of blood is mentioned. But I can tell you that I have more respect than I ever did for all first responders (including police) who deal with it on a regular basis. How you folks do that is more than I can imagine.
Scents don’t have to be as powerful as that of course to be memorable. In fact, it is said that our sense of smell is a lot more powerful than we may think. Smells of all kinds bring back memories (Ever catch a hint of the cologne or perfume an old flame wore? See what I mean?). They’re powerful advertisements, too; bakeries everywhere count on that. And of course, they play a role in investigations, both real and fictional.
It’s a bit harder to depict scents and their impact in fiction, but it can be done well. And some detail about scents can add to a reader’s engagement in a novel. Certainly it does in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Wellington television journalist Rebecca Thorne thinks she’s found the story that will make her career when she learns of the case of Connor Bligh. He’s in prison for the murders of his sister Angela, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. The only member of the family who escaped was their daughter Katy, who wasn’t at home at the time of the murders. Here’s what Katy says about her arrival home that terrible day:
‘Then my heart started beating so hard it felt as if it would burst and I started choking. Choking and retching. It was the smell.’
This description is actually given several years after the murders; that’s how much of an impact the scent of the murder scene had.
Christopher Brookmyre’s Quite Ugly One Morning begins when journalist Jack Parlabane wakes up to the sound of a terrible commotion coming from the flat downstairs. He’s got an awful hangover, but he is curious about what’s going on. He leaves his own home, not thinking to bring his key along, and goes downstairs. The crime scene that awaits him (no, I won’t describe it in detail) is, to say the least, foul. The scents are enough to make Parlabane feel much, much worse, and he wants to get back to his own place as soon as he can. But without his key, he can’t do that. So he decides to go through one of the windows in the downstairs flat and climb up into the corresponding window in his own. That’s when DC Jenny Dalziel, who’s one of the investigators, catches him. And it’s how Parlabane gets involved in a crime story he couldn’t have imagined.
As I mentioned, scents can also be powerful triggers for memory. Agatha Christie uses that fact in several of her stories. For instance, in Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale was poisoned one afternoon, and the assumption has always been that his wife Caroline was responsible. She had motive, too, and in fact, was arrested and convicted. She died in prison, so is no longer there to defend herself; but Carla is convinced she was innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and starts by interviewing all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each. Then, he uses that information to establish who was guilty. One of the things that several people tell him is that the murder happened so long ago that it’s impossible to remember details. But Poirot uses strong scents in two instances to trigger memories; that information helps him greatly in solving the mystery. I know, I know, fans of After the Funeral and Murder on the Orient Express.
Of course, not all scents are unpleasant or terrible reminders. But they all have the capacity to influence us. Just ask Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She’s a Melbourne baker who knows the appeal of the smell of fresh-baked bread. Here’s what she says about it in Heavenly Pleasures:
‘The scent of fresh baked bread was dragging the famished hordes out of the cold street, where a nasty little Melbourne wind had whipped up…’
It’s very hard to walk past a bakery for just that reason.
Scent is also a really important part of the appeal of wine. Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen’s Benjamin Cooker could tell you all about it. He is a winemaker and a noted oenologist, whose opinion is respected throughout the winemaking community. His expertise also makes him and his assistant Virgile Lanssien perfect choices to investigate when there is fraud, theft or worse among the members. More than once in this Winemaker Detective series, there are mentions of the way wine is made, and how that process impacts its aroma. It’s a really clear example of how much our sense of taste is affected by our sense of smell.
You may not think about it much unless perhaps you have a cold, so that you can’t smell much. But scents really are very powerful triggers, for memories and a lot else.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations.