What’s That Smell?

by Helen Currie Foster

In the back of the closet I recently unearthed my mother’s old Caswell Massey “Gardenia” bubble bath. The resulting bath held astonishing comfort and nostalgia. It smelled like her house.

Mystery writers can use smell to reinforce not only setting and character, but powerful plots. Here are strong examples from the first chapter of Lethal White, the fourth in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series. Chapter one begins with the wedding of Strike’s former co-detective Robin Ellacott and her long-time (but insufferable) fiancé Matthew Cunliffe, arguing while the wedding photographer tries to get some decent shots. Strike has fired Robin, partly from fear she’ll be killed. Without her job, Robin’s miserable. Matthew’s furious because of the joy he saw on Robin’s face when Strike arrived for the ceremony, heavily bandaged from capturing a killer. And now, arguing with Matthew, how does Robin feel? “The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.” The hot smell matches Robin’s itchy misery as she second-guesses her marriage to Matthew.

The country hotel setting smells beautiful, in stark contrast to Strike’s emotions: “For a while he lurked at the end of the bar, nursing a pint…and then repaired to the terrace, where he had stood apart from the other smokers and contemplated the dappled evening, breathing in the sweet meadow smell beneath a coral sky.” Sweet meadow smell; miserable situation.

Robin finally reaches Strike on the stairs as he’s leaving: “They were holding each other tightly before they knew what had happened, Robin’s chin on Strike’s shoulder, his face in her hair. He smelled of sweat, beer, and surgical spirits, she, of roses and the faint perfume that he had missed when she was no longer in the office.” The scene is almost shocking in its sensory overload. We feel their powerful attraction. Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) brilliantly gives us not only the protagonists, but the pain of their predicament, using scent to remind us of Strike’s injury (surgical spirits) and the fact that he has missed her perfume because she’s no longer in the office.

We already know that Chet, the heroic detective dog of Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series, is a dog of admirable olfactory sensitivity. He feels sorry for his human partner, Bernie (who labors under the misapprehension that he, not Chet, is the detective), because Chet knows human limitations, olfactorily speaking.

Chet and Bernie search for lost young campers in Spencer Quinn’s The Dog Who Knew Too Much. Chet’s nose moves the plot along: I smelled ashes, plus chocolate, the way it smells when hot chocolate gets burned in the pot, and….the remains of a not-too-long-ago campfire. I knew fire pits, of course, went over and took some closer sniffs. Burned hot chocolate, yes. There’d also been Spam and something eggy. I stuck my nose just about right into the ashes. They were cold.” Oh, the advantages of a detective dog as protagonist.

Well, Chet, don’t underrate us. Research shows we humans can detect at least a trillion odors! Bill Bryson, The Body, at 90.

Furthermore, as Chet the dog already knows, we humans each have our own unique scent: “It’s like a fingerprint,” says Johan Lundström, a neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, in “The Sense of Smell in Humans is More Powerful Than We Think, ” by Marta Zaraska–an interesting article.

Didn’t we already know we can identify the scent of the loved one? Mothers can recognize their newborns by smell (and vice versa). Bryson says olfactory information goes directly to our olfactory cortex, next to the hippocampus, where memories are shaped, which is why some neuroscientists think certain smells evoke memories. Oh, didn’t Proust mention that? Scent brings back the dead, if only for a second. In my Ghost Cat, after the death of his wife Holly, Russ confesses that when he walks in the house, he lifts his eyes and inhales: “I always hope for a little whiff of Holly.”

However––some odors fly under our radar. We may feel, but can’t always articulate, how certain smells arouse our emotions. We say fear is contagious but we haven’t known how. Zaraska cites research showing when we smell body odor from a stressed person, we ourselves become more vigilant. When we smell body odor of a close relative, per Zaraska, we can recognize family, and our dorsomedial-prefontal cortext can light up. Maybe some of this we’ve known without really knowing it.

Plus, we apparently have sensory radar for genetic information. For mating! A woman inhaling body odor of a potential mate senses how genetically related the two are––by sniffing a gene family that links body scent and the immune system, called the “major histocompatibility complex” or “MHC.” This capacity is useful: we like our mates to be related enough––but not too much. My protagonist Alice, lawyer and amateur sleuth in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, is well aware how much she likes the way her love interest Ben Kinsear smells––he “smells good”––but she hasn’t put words to the smell the way Chet the dog has. He defines his own smell as “the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupcon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir.”

Could you define your own smell? With aromatic detail? Probably not. A loved one might be able to.

Smell can deepen a scene, define character, highlight plot. Ann Cleeves, in Dead Water (her Shetland series) describes the reception desk in the hotel, a key setting, as “all dark wood, with the smell of beeswax.” The sweet smell, the dark venue.

Elly Griffiths in The Crossing Places shows us her protagonist, archeologist Ruth Galloway: “Climbing the danksmelling staircase to her office, she thinks about her first lecture: First Principles in Excavation.” Danksmelling…excavation. Her job.

Louise Penny, in A Better Man, uses smell to reinforce the humiliating demotion of her protagonist, Quebec Inspector Armand Gamache. A former subordinate now bosses him. A giant ice storm with crashing ice flows and high water threatens Quebec. Worried the Champlain bridge will break, on the way to a police meeting, Gamache gets splattered with mud trying to see whether the dam will hold.

“I see some of the crap thrown at you today on Twitter has stuck,” said the senior officer from the RCMP, gesturing at Gamache’s clothing.

Gamache smiled. “Fortunately, it won’t stain.”

“But it does smell,” said the Mountie, with a wry smile. “Helluva first day back on the job, Armand.”

A great metaphor for the smelly attacks on Gamache that have led to his demotion.

In A Cinnabar Sky’s opening scene, Billy Kring uses smell to build dread and suspense around the locked trunk his protagonist Hunter Kincaid and her companion Buddy are about to pry open. Buddy says, “Now the smell is more like a really bad swamp, right?” When they pop the trunk, it’s “like an abandoned slaughterhouse gone fetid and rotten in the summer heat.”

The “smells” article sent me to poetry. Back to the bookshelves. Poets, in their compressed genre, seem to convey scent by evocative words, words that already define a smell, name a smell. Wallace Stevens has only to say, “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” in Sunday Morning and we smell them. Shakespeare has only to write “The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem/For that sweet odor which doth in it live” in Sonnet 54. He doesn’t have to define the “sweet odor”: he knows we know it. Coffee? Oranges? Cigar smoke? The word itself gives us the smell. Robert Frost, In Neglect: “I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant…” We do too. Billy Collins, Canada: “O Canada, as the anthem goes,/scene of my boyhood summers,/you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table…” The smell of sneaked cigarettes of youth.

Wallace Stevens did try more extensive fragrant description in Approaching Carolina: “Tilting up his nose/he inhaled the rancid rosin, burly smells/Of dampened lumber, emanations blown/From warehouse doors, the gustiness of ropes,/Decays of sacks, and all the arrant stinks…” We sure know what he means. But is this too much? I wonder if he wondered.

In the upcoming Ghost Daughter, seventh in my series, Alice quizzes a young friend about a new boyfriend. Alice blurts, “So he smells good?” She realizes her own standards for a lifetime companion involve “someone who smelled right…” Probably you’ve all had that experience. Maybe that’s how humans perceive certain under-the-radar scents, as “right” or “not right,” as “good” or “threatening.” Based on Zaraska’s article I suppose “good” may mean “right” in terms of the mysterious “major histocompatibility complex.” Not sure that’s how I want to describe it, though.

I’ll keep working on aromatic pages.

###

Read more about Helen Currie Foster here.

Blending Sub-genres

By N. M. Cedeño

Do you write in more than one genre? Do you blend genres or sub-genres? I do. Some sub-genres seem to lend themselves easily to blending.

While I write mostly in the mystery genre, sometimes I veer into science fiction. A recent Writer’s Digest article entitled 114 Fiction Sub-Genre Descriptions for Writers allowed me to examine exactly how many sub-genres my stories fall into.

created by Wordclouds

My first published story could be classified as a private detective mystery, as a science fiction mystery, as hard science fiction, and as social science fiction, which I’ve also seen called sociological science fiction. Whatever you call it, the story, entitled A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy, features a private detective living in a future society in which all privacy rights have been eliminated because “only people with something to hide need privacy.” The detective, Pete Lincoln, is still adjusting to the ways society changed while he was recovering from a gunshot-wound-induced coma, making him something of a fish out of water. While I considered the story to be a mystery, it was originally published in Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, a magazine that focuses on hard science fiction.

In terms of blending genres, the classic mystery private eye trope of the outsider detective with his own internal compass working in a world where everyone else abides by a different set of rules blends well with sociological science fiction. The trope serves to ground the reader, putting them in comfortable, familiar territory even if the society around the detective is unfamiliar, otherworldly, or dystopian. So when my broke detective is sitting at his desk and a lady arrives in his office with a problem, the reader knows what to expect, even if the story is set in a future world with no privacy rights.

Bad Vibes Removal Services Series logo by N. M. Cedeno

My Bad Vibes Removal Services series, which currently includes 14 short stories and two novels, also falls into a couple of sub-genres. The stories all feature ghosts and some sort of problem that has to be solved, usually a crime, making them paranormal mysteries. However, the detective in my stories, Montgomery, and his employees, Lea, Kamika, and Patrick, use pseudo-scientific inventions to help them solve their cases. That puts the stories into the private detective mystery and science fantasy sub-genres as well. The Bad Vibes series felt like a natural blend of sub-genres to me. Like strawberries and chocolate, science fantasy pairs well with paranormal mystery.

My novel entitled All in Her Head is an amateur sleuth mystery, a romantic mystery, and also falls into the woman in jeopardy sub-genre. The story features a socially-isolated new college graduate who witnesses an attempted murder and then faces ongoing attacks as the perpetrator tries to remove her as a witness. She joins forces with and falls for the victim’s brother while trying to unmask the villain. Romance and mystery are a natural blend, with the heightened emotions created by the crime adding to the romantic tension.

In the novel For the Children’s Sake, I blended an amateur detective mystery and classic whodunit with what might be labeled a medical mystery or mystery science fiction since the medical condition featured in the plot doesn’t exist. In the novel, a priest who advocated on behalf of children with a rare and deadly-to-other-people genetic condition is murdered and his twin brother works to solve the crime. The medical mystery sub-genres which typically features a medical threat, blends easily with mystery science fiction since the writer can invent medical threats that don’t exist yet, making the story science fiction.

Looking at my unpublished stories, I’ve written cozy mysteries, police procedurals, historical mysteries, and spy thrillers, too. I like to challenge myself to try new things. I look forward to trying my hand at writing in some of the other sub-genres on the Writer’s Digest list.

****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

William Bit Me. Again. And Jenny Kissed Leigh Hunt.

by Kathy Waller

I was preparing an update to my January 25 post about resolving to read all forty-seven of Anthony Trollope’s novels in 2021. I worked all day yesterday and all day today (with time out to play Candy Crush and Scrabble Online while waiting to think of the next word).

The post was intended to be both light-hearted and erudite—the erudite part was the reason for the Candy Crush time-outs, because although when I was in graduate school I was, at times, extremely erudite, I’m a little out of practice.

And it takes a lot of words to be erudite. The piece kept getting longer and longer, with no end in sight.

So I did what I do. I scrapped it in the interest of a post with no erudition at all.

It begins with a cat bite and ends with a poem.

William the Cat had dental surgery last month. He’s twelve years old and overweight and diabetic, and I spent the day before surgery crying because I was afraid he would be anesthetized and never wake up.

However, he woke up and came home looking just as disgusted as he’d looked when he left home. In the interim, he’d lost five teeth, but he didn’t seem to miss them. In fact, he was downright perky.

Before surgery, David had to lift him onto the bed, where he spent his days monitoring squirrels and sleeping. Now he trips right up those kitty stairs and plops himself down any time he pleases.

He pleases when he smells coconut oil. I rub it on my hands at night for a moisturizer. He licks it off my hands. Sometimes he chases me onto the bed. Sometimes he gets there first and I have to wrestle him out of the way.

Being catlicked feels icky, but he’s elderly and determined, and I tolerate it, up to a point. The encounter usually ends in his getting a head, ear, and throat rub, followed by a tummy rub, accompanied by a rumbling purr (his). Sometimes he then walks across me, threatening to crack a couple of my ribs, to get to the other hand before succumbing to the tummy rub. Then he leaves.

But sometimes he bites. He’s always been a biter—lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp—as part of play. My fingers are toys. But where coconut oil is involved, he becomes the foe—adversary, attacker, assailant. Backbiter.

I’m not talking nips or little love bites. I mean he’s going for a mouthful of flesh and possibly some bone to go with it. And a few puncture wounds.

That’s how I know he still has his fangs. And that they’re in good working order.

Fortunately, the recent dental cleaning has kept me from having to visit the urgent care clinic for antibiotics. A little Neosporin and band-aids have sufficed.

I know about cat bites. Years ago, a stray cat named Perceval (I’d sort of adopted him) bit me when I gave him a tummy rub (not his fault; he turned belly-up, and I thought he wanted a tummy rub, but he’d been down the street chasing other stray cats and was still hyper). I ended up with cellulitis up to the elbow. “My gosh,” said the doctor, “we used to put people in the hospital on an antibiotic drip for that.”

More recently (six years ago, to be exact), while being worked on by a vet tech, William scraped my arm with a fang. Within twenty minutes the scrape was surrounded by a red circle two inches in diameter.

I went to the urgent care clinic. Then I went home and did what writers do: I  wrote a poem about the experience.

But before I can talk about that poem, I must talk about another one: Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me.” It’s one of my favorites. To wit:

Jane Carlyle, wife of philosopher Thomas Carlyle, was a quiet woman. She did not show strong emotion. But one day when writer Leigh Hunt, who had been very ill, arrived for a visit, Jane jumped up from her chair, ran across the room, and kissed him. Surprised and delighted, Hunt memorialized the event in a poem.

Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.

James Henry Leigh Hunt

And that is how I came to memorialize the almost-bite William gave me at the veterinarian’s office:

William bit me at the vet,
Didn’t like the aide’s assistance,
Used his claws and fangs to set
On the path of most resistance.
Say I’m teary, say I’m mad,
Say that pills and needles hit me,
Say my arm’s inflamed, and add,
William bit me.

~ Kathy Waller

***

Image of cartoon cat by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Image of lion by Anja🤗#helpinghands #solidarity#stays healthy🙏 from Pixabay

Image of coconut by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

Image of Jane Carlyle by Samuel Laurence via Wikipedia

Images of Candy Crush screen  and of William by me

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her stories appear in Murder on Wheels, Lone Star Lawless, and Day of the Dark. She’s working on a novel.

Phyllis Whitney’s The Ebony Swan

 

by Francine Paino

Still a favorite and should never be forgotten.

 I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan, after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.

I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all.  Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA. 

Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.

I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.

With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late, distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores. 

The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier  Dolores, died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age.  Ruled an accident,  Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.

Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at

the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?

After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.

Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all.  On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?  

 A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations. 

  Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.