inAuthors: Denise Hamilton Riffs on the Cultural Nexus Between Books & Perfume
October 24, 2011 by inReads
Crime novelist and journalist Denise Hamilton is known for her crime novels and the Edgar Award winning anthologies Los Angeles Noir and Los Angeles Noir 2: The Classics. The author of Damage Control talks about the connection between her work and…perfume.
I write crime fiction and consider myself more of a dame than a girly girl; so imagine my surprise some years ago when I found myself succumbing to a very girly obsession:
My mother was a White Russian born and raised in France, which made her a proper Frenchwoman. So our bathroom cupboard held bottles of Chanel, Dior, Yves Saint Lauren, Rochas or Guerlain perfumes.
I spent hours spritzing, dabbing and dreaming over these exquisite glass bottles and wishing I was anywhere except the San Fernando Valley. As I grew older, I always put on a bit of Mama’s perfumes before going out. It was part of the getting-ready ritual: dress, shoes, lipstick, earrings, purse, perfume.
Still, I was a punk, so fashion was vintage, thrift-shop and DIY. But I might have been the best-smelling punk in Los Angeles!
After college, I got a job writing for the Los Angeles Times, which allowed me to travel the world for a glorious decade. But after 10 years of doing interviews and writing thousands of stories, I started feeling constrained by the “who, what, where, when, why and goodbye” of daily journalism.
There were days when I longed to crawl inside the heads of the people I interviewed, to put words in their mouths, to punch up their quotes and make their lives even more tragic, funny, awful, surreal and interesting than they already were.
But unlike some of my newsroom colleagues who did just that, I turned to fiction, creating a reporter sleuth who was a bit like me. But my character Eve Diamond caught more bad guys, saved more innocent people and went out on more dates than I did as a reporter.
It took me three years to write my first novel, The Jasmine Trade, which was published by Scribner and was a finalist for a bunch of awards, including the Edgar. I’ve written seven books now and edited two volumes of Los Angeles Noir, short story anthologies featuring crime fiction by the best literary and mystery authors in L.A.
These days, while traveling the country on book tour, I try to make time to visit antique malls for rare, vintage and discontinued perfumes.
(Many people don’t realize that fine perfume can retain its original splendor, or even improve with age, if it’s stored away from heat and light.)
I’ve amassed a decent collection of old vintages and new 21st century fragrances: citrusy colognes, spicy Orientals, incensy post-modern creations, dark rose attars, all-natural perfumes and many more.
How many? I plead the 5th Amendment.
But I do believe that creating great perfume is akin to wine-making or fine cuisine. Perfumers talk of ‘composing” a fragrance and their best creations are work of artistic genius. A great perfume has the same discernible intelligence and rational development of a sonnet or a sonata. Or a pitch perfect short story.
Which brings me to my second passion: books. My husband is a librarian and I’m an author. We have books scattered, shelved or stacked in every room of our house—including the kitchen and bathroom.
By contrast, my perfume collection is limited to my bedroom bureau, my walk-in closet, and one bathroom shelf.
I don’t have a problem, do I?
If you’re shaking your head and tssskking, you’ll be happy to learn that I’ve found a way to blend my love of words and fragrance.
I’ve become the perfume columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
I’ve also woven perfume into my new novel, Damage Control, which came out last month. My heroine, a PR executive named Maggie Silver, is a budding perfumista, a hobby that will come in handy by the end of the book when fragrance provides a clue.
Fictional sleuths use all five senses to solve the crime – and that includes their sense of smell. It’s a tradition that dates back as far as Sherlock Holmes and Dame Agatha Christie. (In Christie’s novel Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, the murderer sprays someone else’s signature perfume in the room to throw the police off the ahem…scent.)
I’ve always had a strong awareness of smell, be it the night-blooming jasmine outside my bedroom window, the smoky summer campfire or the skunk that waddles by at dawn and sprays the neighborhood dog.
This evening after I shower, I’ll wear Chanel’s almost extinct Bois des Iles, a lovely luxurious perfume created in the 1920s that mixes iris, rose and sandalwood. (Try it now before they discontinue it).
My mother used to wear it, and each time I spritz this, I see her standing before me.
Her lipstick is coral red and her hair is marceled into curls, and the Bois des Iles wafts from her warm skin as she leans over the bed to kiss me goodnight before she and my father go out.
The babysitter sits in the living room and I’ve got my flashlight under the covers and a stack of Nancy Drew novels at the ready. At the tender age of 10, I’m already seduced by the whodunit.
These days I often spritz on a favorite perfume before retiring to bed to read.
It’s a way to blend two of my favorite things – books and perfume.
My own personal nightcap.
MOVED BY WHAT YOU READ?
Check out Denise Hamilton’s perfume column.
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About The Author:
Reading and writing in DC.