Memorial Resident John Oehler recently penned a novel called Aphrodesia, a mystery and suspense story centered on the world of perfumes. The protagonist, a student at the world’s top perfume school, creates a powerful aphrodisiac only to find himself accused of serial murder when a knockoff of his fragrance surfaces as the sole link in a series of passion-driven homicides. What better book to find out what’s inside for Valentine’s Day?
AM – Where did you come up with the concept to write a book on perfumes?
JO – I write thrillers, and for many years, I wanted to write a story involving fragrances and how they affect us. But the two didn’t seem to go together — a suspense story driven by scent? Then, one day I was discussing the history of perfumes with a master perfumer in Versailles. He told me great perfumes have always had one purpose: to seduce. I asked if creation of a true aphrodisiac was a goal of the perfumer’s art, and he said, “It’s the Holy Grail.”
That was my inspiration. A bottle of Joy might not drive a story, but an aphrodisiac fragrance definitely would. One thing I loved about writing the novel was that it gave me a chance to weave in other scent-related topics, like the fragrance additives in supermarket products, the only fragrance recipe in the Bible, and why the skin cells each person sheds can be traced back uniquely to that person.
AM – Do you know a lot about smell?
JO – I do know more than the average individual because I’ve done a lot of research. I only wish my own sense of smell were more acute. I know people whose noses are so sensitive they have difficulty attending parties and cannot stand to be in an elevator if someone wearing cologne or aftershave has ridden in it recently. Even if you’re not that sensitive, smell affects you in primal ways. It can catapult you back to sitting in your father’s lap as he read you a story, or to your first date, or to a time you got caught doing something you shouldn’t. It plays a major role in our attraction to others, or our repulsion.
In the past, smell was often used to correctly diagnose certain diseases, a talent largely lost among modern physicians. Smell is also integral to flavor. Food chemists distinguish taste from flavor. If you hold your nose, your tongue can detect only six tastes. But add smell, and you can detect thousands of flavors, and it protects us. We can literally smell danger, at least certain kinds of danger. Some we register without knowing exactly why.
Smell is thought to be the most primitive, most basic, of our senses. Unlike our other senses, smell physiologically goes straight from our receptor cells to our brains, the signal essentially “unprocessed.” Perhaps this is why it affects us so strongly.
AM – What are some of your favorite scents and why?
JO – Some of the classics are heavenly: Shocking, Tabac Blond, Joy, No. 5, Trésor, Miss Dior. I also like many of the products made by Creed and l’Artisan. The reasons these appeal to me are that they aren’t overpoweringly sweet; they contain intriguing combinations of fragrance notes, they combine beautifully with the smells of skin and hair, and they evolve gracefully as an evening progresses.
By “evolve,” I’m referring to the fact that good perfumes, like fine wines, change over the course of several hours. Perfumes are often described as having top notes, heart notes and base notes. These terms pertain to how quickly the various components evaporate. Top notes tend to be “lighter” – the fresh, often floral scents that dominate on first smelling – and these are the first to evaporate. Heart notes linger and comprise what we think of as the smell that characterizes the perfume. When perfumers create a fragrance, they begin with the heart note. With time, these too evaporate, leaving a smell dominated by the base note. Base note scents usually come from animal products — ambergris from whales, civet from an African cat, castoreum from beavers. These are the ingredients designed to arouse. The whole evaporative sequence is meant to enhance a romantic evening, from first meeting, to a lovely night out, to a sensual culmination. I like perfumes that do that well.
AM – Why do men and women turn to the same scent over and over?
JO – Our fragrance preferences often mature as we grow older. But some things never change. When we’re young, we experiment. Often what we settle on is what we like. If we’re fortunate enough to meet someone who likes the same type of scent, then our chances of forming a lasting bond are increased, and we will keep coming back to that scent or to a related one.
H&R (Harmann and Reimer) have published “genealogies” of male fragrances and female fragrances, where they divide perfumes into about a dozen categories and show which perfumes are descended from earlier classics. It so happens that my wife and I both favor “Oriental” fragrances. And, I’m convinced that this is one reason we have remained together for more than forty years. We like the way each other smells. So I think we come back to the same scent, or a related scent, because we like it and/or our partner likes it. Of course, it’s always possible that what you like is significantly different from what your partner likes. In that case, you’d be well advised to go with what appeals to your partner.
AM – Since Valentine’s Day is this month are there any scents that really are considered aphrodesiatic?
JO – We’ve all heard about pheromones, the scents many animals emit when they’re ready to mate. Unfortunately, science so far has not identified any pheromones in humans. Some attribute this to the absence in humans of a particular type of receptor cell in the nose. Still, it’s a fact that strippers make bigger tips when they’re ovulating, and this is almost certainly tied to the scent of certain bodily secretions at that time of month, something men register subconsciously.
Aside from that, the two closest things to human pheromones are male sweat for women and female urine for men. You might not think of those smells as stimulating, but scent bypasses rational thought. That said, if you believe a fragrance or a food (such as oysters) is an aphrodisiac, it quite likely will be. More than anything else, romance is aroused by atmosphere.
AM How do you know so much about perfumes?
JO – Three times, I travelled to Versailles, France to interview one of the great master perfumers. Plus, I did a lot of research on topics like the forensic aspects of scent, ancient perfumes and why certain women – and men – prefer certain fragrances. In Aphrodesia, all of this comes together in the protagonist’s quest to prove his innocence.
Aphrodesia is available at Blue Willow Book Shop, as well as online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.