To smell and smell not

Cover of 'Perfume: The Story of a Murderer'
Cover of ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’

‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’ novel review

By Ethan Gibson, Columnist




Evocation is among the writer’s most powerful tools. The ability to recreate entire experiences and sensations through mere words allows a unique magic to unfold across a page. While reading, our senses of sight, sound, taste, and touch are manipulated by the author to achieve a wide range of effects. Yet the sense of smell is often ignored in fiction—perhaps because we often fail to fully appreciate the world of scent we pass through each day. Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (translated from the German by John E. Woods) is immersed in the world of scent and perfume, and therefore uncovers an entire world of fictional possibilities.

Perfume details the life of an 18th-century Parisian man named Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Born with a miraculous sense of smell and the ability to store distinct scents within his memory, Grenouille soon discovers that he has the ability to create remarkable and complex perfumes from memory alone. As the novel’s subtitle suggests, Grenouille’s talent lends itself to a dark obsession which leads him to commit murder without remorse. He once smells what he thinks to be the most perfect scent in the world—that of a particular woman. She is his first victim. From then on, Grenouille becomes obsessed with crafting the ultimate perfume—for which he must murder dozens of women.

Perfume is undoubtedly horrifying at times, but the depravity of its villain is balanced with subtle moments of humour. Süskind’s careful attention to historical detail also lends the novel an entrancing sense of reality, even as it challenges the reader’s suspension of disbelief with the almost magical heights of Grenouille’s talents. Perfume is remarkable for the wicked delight it takes in describing in rich detail the smells of 18th-century France, and it explores the power of scent in an addictively chilling plot.

It can be difficult for a novel to balance its tone between wonder and horror. Perfume, however, seems to have no difficulty finding that balance. Despite the frankly disgusting urban conditions it describes, and despite its remorseless villain, the novel also periodically reminds the reader of the beauty and power of scent. Grenouille is a monster incapable of humanity, but he inadvertently imparts an appreciation for the beautiful smells that we often take for granted in our lives.

Süskind’s book is at once a gripping historical thriller, an artful horror story, a richly-detailed examination of evil and obsession, and a powerful reminder of the power that scent can have. Above all, Perfume may also be a warning about the dangers of underestimating any of our senses, be it sight, sound, taste, touch, or scent.