On the Wind That Lifts Her Perfume Through the Air*

ScentsI 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Brookmyre, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Kerry Greenwood, Noël Balen, Paddy Richardson

28 responses to “On the Wind That Lifts Her Perfume Through the Air*

  1. At death, the body loses control of the bowels and bladder so that’s part of the smell of death.

    Smell is considered the most powerful key to memory. Proust’s enormous memoir THE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST starts with the smell of a madeline cookie that brings back memories of childhood.

    Several friends in the medical field insist on having their meat well-done because the smell of blood reminds them too much of surgery and injuries.

    • Marilynn – Thanks so much for the mention of the Proust. It’s a great example of the powerful way that scent affects us. So is your friends’ choice of well-done meat. And about death? Yes, the smell is not pretty, and is often glossed over. People aren’t always aware of that.

  2. Scents are one of my favorite things to use in my books. Nothing is as powerful than a well-placed scent, in my opinion. For instance, in MARRED, the ME douses himself in Aramis cologne. The detectives take one whiff and know he’s on site without ever having to see him. In my WIP, my protagonist’s dead husband used to wear Old Spice and as the MC keens over her loss she smells his pillow. So, yes, I agree with you 100%! I also try to sneak in taste, but it’s much harder unless the characters are enjoying a meal.

    I’m sorry you had to witness a crime scene outside of mainly a research-type interest. That must have been horrible. *hugs*

    • Thanks, Sue *hugs* – It was pretty awful, and it’s going to be with me for a while… About scents, I love your idea of cologne. For a lot of people it becomes sort of a signature, so I can see really easily how the detectives would know a person had been in a place if they know that about that person. And I love that idea about the pillow, too – how evocative! You’re giving me good ideas, for which thanks.

  3. I think all crime fiction fans learn early on that the smell of bitter almonds means cyanide poisoning. It’s a classic trope…
    Sorry you had what was presumably a difficult experience, I hope you are getting over it.

    • It is indeed, Moira. In fact, I almost included that ‘bitter almonds’ trope in this post, but at the last minute I didn’t. I’m glad you filled in that blank. And yes, thanks, it was pretty horrible actually. I won’t go into the (literally) bloody details, but it was bad. And nothing like TV or film… I’ll be OK, though, thanks. I can’t even imagine what the parties to what happened are dealing with, so I’m a lucky one.

  4. Sorry you had to see a horrible sight, unexpectedly. It must’ve been traumatic. I’m sure it did give you renewed respect for police, ambulance, etc. – they see this every day. My mother was a police officer for a few years before I was born, but it was a different world back then in cities in Scotland in the late 60s/early 70s – mostly people who’d had a few too many! (Actually, maybe some things haven’t changed so much….!) But no drugs, I’d imagine, and associated crimes, like property theft. I hope you haven’t been left feeling too shaken up by it all. x

    • Thanks, Crimeworm. Shaken up, yeah, but I’ll be OK. And yes, I truly do have renewed respect for first responders and police, the vast majority of whom are trying to do their jobs best they can. I can say that a few of us were doing what we could to help, but we were all tremendously relieved when the professionals got there.
      I didn’t know your mum had been a police officer. She certainly must have seen her share of things, even if the culture was different back then. It’s one more reason I respect coppers (and have so much contempt for those who abuse the badge). What they do is heroic. So is what paramedics and other first-on-scene professionals do.

  5. Kathy D.

    Oh, gosh, Margot, how awful that you witnessed the crime scene and had to deal with the smell of blood. I hope that it fades as quickly as possible from your immediate memory, even though you probably have to give information about it to law enforcement. But I am so glad neither relatives or friends were affected.
    I’ve never seen anything like that. I’ve seen accident scenes, which was enough.
    I must admit that I often skip the gory part of crime fiction, the descriptions. I’m fine without them.

    • Thanks, Kathy. I’ll be OK, but it was pretty bad, actually. Fortunately, the police interviewed those of us who were witnesses the day it all happened. At the time, I was told that if they needed anything more, they would contact me. That hasn’t happened, so I’m hoping that means they have all they need from me. In the meantime, yes, I am very, very glad that no-one in my immediate circle, so to speak, was involved.
      As to crime fiction, I’m not one for a lot of gore, either. To me, it’s almost never necessary. And even when it’s an essential part of the plot, I sometimes skip the really brutal pages.

  6. Sorry you had to go through that, Margot – I sometimes think not enough attention is paid to the effects of crime on innocent bystanders. Hope the memory begins to fade soon.

    Bookwise, the Peter Helton book I just read, ‘A Good Way to Go’, featured a sub-plot of a man who started out stealing underwear from clothelines and gradually escalated to breaking into women’s houses and going through their drawers – the only thing he left behind was the distinctive smell of his aftershave. There’s a good scene of a police officer going to a store to sniff all their different brands…

    • Thanks, FictionFan. Not an easy thing, but I’ll be OK. And thanks for the mention of the Helton. That scene sounds absolutely priceless! I’ll be keen to see your review of it. It sounds like a good ‘un.

  7. Col

    Sorry to hear about your experience. The Brookmyre example cited, funny enough that’s the only one of his I have read – time to pick him up again I think.

  8. That must have been a rather terrifying experience, Margot, sorry to hear about it.
    Smell is one of the most powerful senses – who doesn’t remember the smell of a mother’s cooking, or a loved one’s perfume or aftershave? For me, smell evokes place and period. I associate linden trees with Bucharest of my teenage years, lilacs with London in my twenties, apple pie and vanilla sauce with my childhood in Vienna and so on.
    They had a whole discussion about scents during one of the panels I attended in Lyon: Val McDermid said smell is a time machine that whisks you back to a scene. Saul Black said that he’s a big fan of smell on the page, and that if we look to Shakespeare’s language, about half of his metaphorical language refers to the senses of smell and taste, while nowadays we focus much more on sight and sound. Elizabeth George said that she had read a study that neuron transmitters of smell are more closely linked to the part of our brain that evokes memory, so that’s why it’s so powerful.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia – it was scary. I’ll be fine, but it’s not something I will forget. About scent…how lucky you were to hear McDermid, Black and George at that panel! I’m sure it was fascinating. It reminds me of studies I’ve read that suggest that scent is one of the chemical factors involved in attracting people to each other. We each have a unique scent pattern that isn’t obvious, but it’s there. And at a very basic level, that’s what attracts us to each other.
      Interesting what McDermid said about scent and memory, too. Your own examples really show how certain scents are just so strongly associated with certain places and times in one’s life that they take you right back there. I think we all have those scent memories. I know I do. Funny you’d mention apple pie, too. There were two apple trees at the house where I grew up, so I have memories of apple pie too.

  9. Yes, scents are so evocative. I recently bought a bottle of perfume because it reminded me of my mother and now I often think of her when I use it.
    Take care of yourself, Margot. You have had a very nasty shock.

    • Thanks, Christine – I’m letting myself deal with it, rather than push it aside. I’ll be OK. What a lovely way to remember your mother, to use a perfume that reminds you of her. I’m glad you have that way to connect with her. And it really is a clear example of how much scents affect us.

  10. Certain odors can bring back ancient memories in an instant. A whiff of lye soap — back to the 40s when my grandmother made her own soap. Even the hint of Paris perfume by Yves Saint Laurent reminds me of my mother (who’s still doing fine at age 96 and still loves that scent). For a mystery writer, knowing that could provide lots of opportunities to identify who might have been present at a crime scene.

    • You’re quite right, Pat, about the possibilities for a crime writer when it comes to using the power of scents. They can be used as clues, as memory triggers, and lots more. And I know just what you mean about things like lye soap and Paris perfume. There’s just something about certain scents that just put a person right back in a certain time or place, or remind a person of someone.

  11. It seems like I have read several books lately that comment on the smell of blood at a crime scene. It always seemed strange to me that blood would have a smell. Sorry you went through that.

  12. I love this as one of the reasons I like books about memory is it can be scent or sound that transports the receiver to another time and place. I find myself remembering something random from the past and realise that it is a smell or piece of music that has triggered the memory. Having said that I’m very pleased this wasn’t a post about books about the smell of blood. It can be quite scary being a witness to something terrible, it happened to me once and like you although no-one died it isn’t something I’ve ever forgotten and has remained a vivid memory.

    • Oh, Cleo, I am sorry you had to be a witness to something awful! Isn’t it terrible? you’re right; that sort of thing stays. And it’s true that memory can be triggered by something like a scent, It can be as simple as the smell of a flower or just a faint hint of perfume, aftershave or certain food. Using that in fiction can really add to a story I think.

  13. Sorry you had to go through that, Margot. There’s somethimg very base and primal about the smell if blood that really has a way of effecting you, like you say.

    On another note thanks for reminding me of Brookmyres, Quite Ugly One Morning – I love that book, although I have to say I’ve been dissapointed with his most recent books :-/

    • Thanks, DS. That smell really does impact a person. And all credit to you – more than ever now – for the time you spent as a first responder. I cannot imagine going through that sort of thing all the time, and don’t know how you did it.
      As to Brookmyre, he does do some wickedly funny stories. I prefer his earlier stuff as well, but I know there are plenty of people who really like his latest, too.

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