Perfume and mystery are partners in crime. Certain smells have the power to conjure long-forgotten memories, stirring up stagnant, intangible feelings that we can’t quite explain. Science backs this up. A 2012 study found the mere whiff of scents like cake batter or an old flame’s signature perfume can bring on emotional memories. They can also leave us baffled – struggling to place a memory or wondering what it was about a certain odor that felt so strangely familiar. This is the stuff Proust was talking about.
It was with perfume and mystery in mind that I found myself at The Mysterious Bookshop last night for the launch of suspense novel The Collector of Dying Breaths by M.J. Rose, a story that weaves its way through time, from the days of Catherine de Medici’s court to twenty-first-century France. A mix of historical fiction and classic thriller, it chronicles a 16th century perfumer in search of immortality and an obsessive and passionate modern-day mythologist fascinated by his story.
If you haven’t been there already, The Mysterious Bookshop is worth the stop. It’s a one-of-a-kind treasure-trove of crime novels, with entire walls dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle, and shelves hosting nearly any author who’s ever taken pen to paper to write a mystery. It was a welcome old-school relief in the midst of Tribeca, which was bubbling away with the buzz of the nearby film festival.
And M.J. Rose really does take pen to paper. In her talk, alongside fellow suspense writer Jenny Milchman, who was launching Ruin Falls, her second book after debut Cover of Snow, Rose discussed her technique – which is a unique one. When writing novels such as The Collector of Dying Breaths and its predecessor The Book of Lost Fragrances, she sources just the right pen and paper, puts on Gregorian chants and writes them out by hand – without editing or crossing out, as if in a trance. Only afterwards does she take to the computer and transcribe her drafts, editing as she goes.
Because fragrance has been so central to her novels of late, Rose has spent a lot of time researching the stuff; questioning what it is about perfume that affects people so profoundly. She even collaborated with master perfumer Frederick Bouchardy of Joya Studio to create a signature scent for reoccurring character Jac L’Etoile who appears in three of her novels, including The Collector of Dying Breaths. A few of us at the event got to experience the perfume, called Ames Soeurs, or soul mates, which is as intriguing as Rose’s story lines. It’s beguilingly woody with notes of orange blossom, lotus, rose, jasmine, frankincense and myrrh, starting off sweet and ending with a strong hit of incense.
It also turns out we’ve been putting perfume on wrong: Rose insists it should be applied to the top of the wrist, to avoid rubbing it off as you go about your day, and front of your neck, since the oils under your ear can spoil the scent.
As I write this, the tops of my wrists are doused in Ames Soeurs and each click of the keyboard is bringing me back The Mysterious Bookshop and the books it houses. The evening was a fascinating glimpse into the world of perfume and mystery novels: What other event would leave you with both a signature scent and a hankering to read a new book?
Twisted Talk: Have you read any of M.J. Rose’s mystery novels? What’s your favorite and most memory-inducing scent? Discuss below!