Yes, But How Did It Smell? @JMmystery

Jeanne Matthews is happy to announce the arrival of a new historical mystery, Devil by the Tail, released in July 2021.  Jeanne has a yen for travel and a passion for mythology, which she works into her novels whenever she can.  Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives in Washington State with her husband, a law professor, and a Norwich terrier named Jack Reacher.  Information about her books, including the Dinah Pelerin international series, can be found on her website. http://www.jeannematthews.com  

Writing about smell is hard.  Most of us are better at describing what we see than what we smell.  Sounds are easier to put into words – the snap, crackle, and pop of a thing.  Touch presents no problem.  Is it hot, cold, soft, bristly?  But smell is the fallen angel of the senses, said Helen Keller, who possessed neither sight nor hearing and relied on her nose more than the average person.  Neuroscientists say that humans have 400 different types of receptors for detecting odor molecules – not so many as dogs or cats, but enough to permit us to identify a trillion distinct smells.  But recognizing a smell and capturing its essence in language can be challenging.

The Claret Drinker credit Ralph Steadman

Wine critics have the best olfactory vocabularies.  They tend to associate aroma with its source – flowers, herbs, minerals.  Saying that a wine tastes like a Tuscan sunset is an imaginative stretch and a perfect example of synaesthesia, i.e., the use of one sense to describe another.  Cool colors, loud wallpaper, a gravelly voice.  It’s a common rhetorical device that allows writers to deliver an extra level of description.  P.G. Wodehouse combined the sense of sound with the sense of sight.  “The girl had a quiet, but speaking eye.”  Robert Frost gave us the line, “From what I’ve tasted of desire.”  Raymond Chandler, that master of the figurative phrase, created one of the rare instances in which a smell is described in terms of another sense.  “She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.”

Advertisers use synaesthesia by mixing expressions that refer to other senses.  Market research shows that products become fixed in our memory if they appeal to multiple senses at once.  Potato chips “like sweet banjo music to your tongue” and chocolate “like music to your mouth.”  Skittles taste like the rainbow.  “Hear the big picture,” is the tagline for Canadian national radio.  Rimmel coined the slogan, “Lips that scream with color.”  Small wonder mystery writers have jumped on the sensory bandwagon with titles such as The Sound of Murder, The Taste of Murder, and The Sweet Smell of Murder.

Perfume designers often liken scents to abstract qualities – joy, passion, truth.  While we’re all eager to “sniff out the truth,” it doesn’t give off an actual odor.  Likening a sense to an abstract quality is another kind of synaesthesia.  “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” enthuses Lt. Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now.  “One time we had a hill bombed for twelve hours…you know, that gasoline smell, the whole hill.  Smelled like…victory.”

Of course synaesthesia is also a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one sense intertwines and melds with others.  Billie Eilish is a synaesthete.  She perceives colors and shapes when she hears certain music; days and numbers and people trigger idiosyncratic sensory impressions.  Jimmy Fallon strikes Billie as a vertical brown rectangle.  Being associated with so drab a color was enough to discomfit Fallon.  He didn’t pursue the subject of smell.

Writers are urged to incorporate smells into their writing to immerse the reader more completely in their fictional worlds.  Smell can create a mood, signal danger, establish setting, and evoke memories – both pleasant and unpleasant.  I’ve been thinking a lot about smell lately, and not just because of the fear of catching COVID and losing that faculty altogether.  Smell plays a significant role in Devil by The Tail.  A friend told me she was reading Proust this summer and when she finished, she planned to read my book.  I was obliged to warn her that the transition from the taste and scent of a madeleine dipped in tea to the reek of the stockyards in 19th Century Chicago would be jarring.  Meatpackers dumped entrails, grease, and manure into the Chicago River.  One stretch of the river received so much blood and offal that it bubbled from methane, hydrogen sulfide gas, and the products of decomposition.  It was an olfactory nightmare, but not unattractive.  “’Twas the prettiest river to look at you’ll ever see,” wrote one journalist, “green at th’ sausage fact’ry, blue at th’ soap fact’ry, yellow at th’ tannery.”

You may ask how I was able to imagine the odoriferous miasma that hovered over Chicago in 1867.  As a matter of fact, I am uniquely qualified.  In the 1970s I worked as a paralegal for a law firm that represented a rendering plant that processed animal by-products for use as tallow and bone meal.  I visited the slaughterhouse and the plant on several occasions and spent so much time reading and writing about the operation that I became known in-house as the “queen of offal.”  The fragrance wafting from a rendering plant isn’t much like the whiff of a madeleine, but it is equally memorable.  Even so, it was hard to describe.

2 thoughts on “Yes, But How Did It Smell? @JMmystery

  1. Pingback: Yes, But How Did It Smell? @JMmystery — Buried Under Books – Sharon E. Cathcart

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