Friday, August 12, 2011

The Scent of Obsession: a guest blog by Denise Hamilton

Denise Hamilton is a little too good to be true. She's a Fulbright Scholar. She was a successful reporter at the LA Times who became an even more successful mystery author. Her Eve Diamond series and stand-alones, The Last Embrace and the upcoming Damage Control, have been nominated for most of the crime fiction writing awards out there. One of her two adorable sons is in one of those gifted-and-talented programs - you know, the one your kids can't get into. And at an age when most of us need Spanx and a gauzy filter to photograph well, Denise still looks like La Femme Nikita.

Honestly, if she wasn't so damn nice, we'd have to hate her. Here she is, telling us about her whiff of scandal:

Time now for a little True Confession.

I write crime novels full-time, but I also have a little moonlighting gig that might surprise you.

Late at night as my family slumbers, I slip out of bed, fire up the computer and enter a secret and obsessive online world. Bathed in the monitor’s green glow, I pop open glass vials, lift them to my nose or press against the pulsing veins of my wrists.

I inhale deeply, then throw my head back in rapture.

My name is Denise, and I’m a secret perfumista.

I’m also the perfume columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Maybe it came of having a glamorous Russian/French mother who wore Chanel Cristalle, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and Madame Rochas. I’d spend hours in the bathroom, applying each fragrance, lining up the gorgeous glass bottles on the tile counter, daydreaming about ballgowns and waltzing with tuxedo-clad young men while orchestras played til dawn.

Growing up in the arid wastes of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, a vivid fantasy world was absolutely necessary for survival.

I remember one mirage-inducing summer when I doused myself with Chanel No. 5 (blooms great in 110-degree heat) and read all the Joseph Wambaugh books on my parents’ shelves. It might have been incongruous to devour The Onion Field while wafting Parisian perfume on Mickey Mouse polyester sheets, but what do kids know?

I wore perfume throughout my 20s (though I never got into sillage monsters like Opium, Giorgio, Poison), but it wasn’t until I ran across a box of Donna Karan Chaos perfume at the Goodwill that I tumbled down the rabbit hole into true obsession.

After spritzing in the store, I wrinkled my nose. Too spicy strong. Also, $29.95 was pretty steep for the thrift store! Back at home, I idly googled the perfume. Chaos had notes of cardamom, oud, agarwood, incense, lavender, cinnamon, saffron, clove, padukwood, coriander. It was also discontinued and fetching $200 on ebay.

Scurrying back to the Goodwill, I snatched up the bottle, thinking I’d sell it and pocket a few simoleons.

Instead, each morning I’d pick it up from my dresser and spritz, wondering WHY people were crazy for this perfume. Sometime around the third day, it hit me. Suddenly I was in love.

Curiosity led me to online sites such as Basenotes, PerfumeOfLife and Fragrantica. I started buying tiny 1 mililiter samples of fragrances whose descriptions intrigued me and swapping perfumes on I became conversant on Haitan vetiver, Madagascar vanilla, the decimation of Mysore sandalwood forests in India and ambergris from whales. To my surprise, I found that 80-year-old parfums stored away from heat and light can be as heady and intoxicating as fine aged wine.

Today, I remain in awe of perfume as an art form and the creative process perfumers work through in creating new fragrances. Great perfumes tell a cogent ‘story’ that is both thrilling and inspiring. To me, perfume offers a very personal way to experience great art as mediated by creative geniuses such as Ernest Beaux of Chanel or Ernest Daltroff of Caron.

I’ve also discovered that perfume wafts through the pages of some of my favorite mystery writers from Agatha Christie to S.S. Dine to Ruth Rendell and Ian Fleming. Our sense of smell is the least utilized and appreciated of our five senses, but mystery writers long ago discovered the potential of weaving olfactory clues, obsessions and scent triggers into their plots.

That’s why I made the heroine in my new book Damage Control a budding perfumista, a talent that proves crucial by the book’s end when perfume provides an important clue.

I always look forward to book tours and the opportunity to meet readers and bookstore staff. But this year, you also might find me scouring antique malls in your city, looking for vintage bottles of Guerlain, Caron, Dior or Chanel.

After all, it’s research for my next column!

You can learn more about Denise, her scents and her books at her website and you can friend her on Facebook.


  1. Thank you for this post, Denise. It's made me a little wistful. I miss fragrance. I used to even have signature scents, fragrances other girls weren't wearing but prompt people to think of me, like an invisible "mark of Zorro."

    Then, my husband developed a fragrance sensitivity. Poof! Overnight. I'd try different things, only to have to scrub - yes, scrub them off.

    Soon, I heard of more of my friends having to go fragrance-free due to sensitivities.

    I hadn't realized how much I miss perfume. Anyway, thank you for this post, I think. :)

  2. My twenty-something daughter has recently become interested in perfumes, and our house is littered with those tiny glass vials. Not to mention a reference book on (apparently) all the perfumes made in the last century or two, which has immensely entertaining descriptions. And she has seized upon my bottle of Detchema, bought in Paris in 1994 and still delightful

    Perfume is so evocative of a person, a time, a place. My grandmother wore Bellodgia, my mother My Sin, and I'm fond of Arpege--but I never knew there were so many other choices out there. So many scents, so little time.

  3. Who knew one could be a perfume writer? What a fascinating job that would be, especially to someone obsessed with scent and fragrance.

    My grandmother wore Chantilly. Just the merest whiff of that very feminine perfume can conjure her up for me. An uncle practically bathed himself in Brut; another uncle reeked Old Spice. My own favorite in the 60's was Muguet des Bois by Coty. A friend just opened a store here, with an inventory of "things made in France", including the full line of Coty parfums. I'd completely forgotten about Emeraude.

    In my 20's and 30's I wore Halston, and still have a couple bottles around. But in the last few years my favorite has been Amarige by Givenchy. Looking for a new, lighter scent these days, though. Maybe I'll go back to Muguet des Bois, now that I know where to get some!

    I've read that scent memory is the strongest of all. And just saw an interview with Jeff Bridges, who says he used it to create his Rooster Cogburn portrayal. He dabbed Wild Turkey around his beard, so he could remember what it was like to be drunk. Interesting, no?

  4. I don't wear perfume myself. My skin is too sensitive. However, I will stop whatever I am doing if I smell a guy wearing Polo. Oh my! I love that scent.

  5. Oh, I love perfume...SOME perfume.

    In high school,Shalimar. IN college, YSL (remember in the blue can?) And then a while with..oh, what was it called? Cabochard.

    I've worn 24 Faubourg for years..and I'm still transported by it.

    Gosh, writing about fragrance. What a challenge! Delighted to have you here today...

    (And I agree--Poison? Opium? Angel? Yuck.)

  6. Oh, I love this, Denise! I've been so fascinated by the world of perfume that I, too, have thought of setting a book around it. Ah, well.

    Scent is so evocative. My mother wore perfume but not a signature scent. I wish she had. But the merest whiff of Windsong or Yardley's English Lavender can transport me instantly back to adolescence. And what was the one that smelled like grass?

    Now I'm a Jo Malone addict. Every time I go through duty free in the UK I try a new Jo Malone. The blend-it-yourself concept is brilliant.

    Now I'm going to go think about what my characters are wearing . . .

  7. Hi everyone, I love love all these comments about the evocative nostalgia of scent! Sheila, I know what book your daughter has - Luca Turin's Perfumes, The A-Z Guide, and yes, it's an absolute hoot and he's a genius the way he weaves food, movies, children's toys, music and art into his perfume reviews.
    Rhonda, have you tried organic, all natural perfumes? Your husband may be allergic to an aromachemical in some of the department store perfumes. Anya's Garden, Roxana Illuminated Perfume, Andy Tauer (who uses 50% high quality naturals) are some options to consider. I hope you'll find some that work for your family so you can once more enjoy the pleasure of scent.

  8. Well--how about the fragrance of Canoe? And ..what was it? Jade East!
    (There was one more that guys used to wear...hmmmm...)


    Now we'll know who went to high school in the 60's....

  9. Hank, I love the Jo Malone colognes too, especially for summer. Karen, I've long loved Halston as well. It's a sophisticated chypre. And one more true confession: I often wear men's colognes. Cuz really, perfume has traditionally been unisex. 19th century men wore florals and 1920s flapper embraced leather scents. The gender divide is all marketing. I do love Canoe, especially the vintage. Many beloved classic perfumes have been reformulated and don't smell the way they used to. So I seek out older bottles.

  10. Denise, what a fun post. And I never knew you had this secret gig. I adored Madame Rochas when I was a young woman. Then I moved on to Arpege, L'air du Temps and then Chanel Number 5.
    I sprayed that on my when I was writing my book Naughty in Nice, which features Coco Chanel. I hoped to channel Chanel!

  11. Rhys, why am I not surprised that you are a classic girl when it comes to perfume! Rochas made some killah perfumes. My fave was Femme, but it's different now, not as rich, fruity and dark. And regarding La Femme Nikita in Julia's lovely intro, ah, it's amazing what a little photoshop can do, eh?

  12. Does anyone remember Kanon for men? I used to buy that for my husband when we were kids. Wore it myself for years because I loved the scent AND it reminded me of him. But, alas, Kanon disappeared . . .

    Oh, for those who don't tolerate scents, I have a problem with most department store colognes and perfumes, but seem to do okay with most of the Jo Malone's. I don't know what percentage of natural oils they contain.

  13. Ladies, two other natural perfumers to check out are Mandy Aftel's Aftelier perfumes (she's in the Bay Area) and L.A.'s Strange Invisible Perfumes.

    Deb, I believe Kanon has been reissued. Not sure if it smells the same, but google it and see.

  14. Oh, now you've tweaked my memory cells! English Leather! We ALL wore it... Oh, I'd love to smell that again..

  15. My imaginary boyfriend (he was real, the imaginary part was about him being my boyfriend) wore Jade East. I bought a little sample bottle to smell it and daydream. I was only 14, okay? :-)

    English Leather! That was a great cologne fragrance, Hank.

    I first found Thierry Mugler's Angel in Paris, in 2001, and was very excited to find some when I got home. But then my daughter discovered it, and she drenches herself in it. It's lost it's appeal for me to wear it. For me, perfume should be subtle, just a whisper, rather than a shout.

  16. Hank, my fave leather scent by far is Chanel's Cuir de Russie, especially in pure parfum. Luxurious, smooth, 19-century decadence.

    Jade East! That's another oldie. I think I have a bottle of that somewhere.

  17. Denise, your post encouraged me to seek out "Tamango" a fragrance I found in the Virgin Islands in the 80's. It was previously unavailable in the States, til recently on the internet! Just ordered a bottle online, and hope I still like the scent!

    Hank, besides English Leather it was British Sterling,remember that? < swoon>

  18. Great post! My mother (Sheila above) pointed me to it. I have indeed been enjoying Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez's book -- except the part where LT trashes Bluebell in a single word. Ouch! À chacun son goût, I guess. I love Cristalle -- it's the only scent I've committed enough to for a sizeable decant, though I'm still too gunshy for a full bottle. I'm still considering Annick Goutal, thinking various offerings from about Etat Libre d'Orange; mooning over the latest from By Kilian. Had I but world enough and funds...

  19. Hi Jules!

    Have you explored There is a whole area devoted to fragrance and you can swap perfumes there and read all the interesting comments on the Fragrance Board. I post there a fair bit.
    Also, for samples, sells 1 ml vials of everything niche, artisanal and rare and is extremely reliable. (Their bricks& mortar store in LA is ScentBar if you ever get out here.) Plus the lush descriptions will make you drool.
    Lastly, I love vintage frags and find a lot of them at antique shops, collectibles shows and even thrift shops, so you can have limited funds and still waft like a perfumed duchess.
    Just make sure to sniff before you buy to make sure it hasn't turned!