The lingering scent of murder: Lara Elena Donnelly's 'Base Notes'

  • by Jim Piechota
  • Tuesday March 8, 2022
Share this Post:
author Lara Elena Donnelly
author Lara Elena Donnelly

Offering a stand-alone fiction next to her well-received three-book collective, the Amberlough Dossier series, Lara Elena Donnelly's latest novel, Base Notes, offers further proof of the author's wide-ranging talent and creativity.

This book is a unique, complicated thriller rooted in everything olfactory, including sensory "base notes" on the book as a whole as well as the scent structures of each chapter.

The novel's introduction is described, for example, as incorporating "Notes de Tete: Ozone. Notes de Coeur: Burnt Bacon. Notes de Fond: Wet Earth, Gasoline." The opening chapter is a heady hierarchy of whiskey, jasmine, oakmoss, old cigarettes, stale coffee, mildew, charcoal, and Barbicide, as it announces the death of Jonathan Bright, gay founder of distinctive Manhattan perfume company, Bright House.

This untimely event puts the narrator, Vic Fowler, not only Bright's love interest but also his protégé, in charge of a company that has unfortunately seen better days. Vic's personal life could use an upgrade as well; he lives in Harlem in a basement apartment sublet where he is required to wait for his landlady to light the boiler each day for heat.

Making a desperate move to rescue the floundering company from certain failure and move out of relative squalor, Vic has developed a perfume line that evokes memories from a wearer's past and is certain it will become a marketing cash cow.

Vic has a nemesis, however, in the form of Joseph Eisner, an asset management bigwig who had previously commissioned him to craft a scent that could kill off three of his corporate partners. One of his former murders was Caroline Yates, wife of another of Eisner's partners who was an angry husband who'd conspired to kill off his own spouse.

Enter Pippin Miles, private investigator on the case to sleuth out the homicides, but Vic needs a better plan to escape indictment as Pippin begins breathing down his neck for answers. He enlists the help of a trio of cohorts —a tailor, a barber, and a bartender— who each become entangled in the stinky business of perfume killer for hire.

The narrative structure oscillates between the messy present and the distant past where Vic's desperate acceptance of Eisner's offer, and its ensuing destruction of his mental stability, morphs into a complex (and often overly confusing) psychological game of chess.

Drenched in pheromones and the smells of the big bad city, Donnelly's Manhattan is of the maskless, fearless pre-Covid variety and her descriptions of the people and places, the grit and the excess, all vibrating in unison are richly realized and evocative.

Inspired by Donnelly's father, who was endlessly fascinated by the perfumery world, this bulky, perhaps overly expository novel takes its sweet time pondering the details and the nuances of scent culture, wealth, privilege, and murder, and how the stench of desperation and success can both linger on the same scent spectrum.

Base Notes by Lara Elena Donnelly; Thomas & Mercer, $15.95

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.