Chandler Burr   The Emperor of Scent  
Chandler Burr  
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A few years ago, journalist Chandler Burr was waiting for the Eurostar to London in Paris's Gare du Nord train station. He began chatting with a man next to him about the scene in "Mission Impossible I" where Tom Cruise flew a helicopter into the Eurostar tunnel. "Yeah," said the man, "good scene. Of course, it's impossible," and detailed why the physics of rotors and air pressure and lift did not work. "I'm a biophysicist," the man explained. "What do you work on?" Burr asked. The man said, "Smell."

This uncategorizable book about biophysicist and perfume genius Luca Turin is that conversation's fascinating result. By the time the Eurostar sped into Waterloo, Burr had already begun writing it in his head, but defining exactly what book it was proved as surprising and constantly mutating as the story itself.

Turin's lab at University College London is filled with vials of smell molecules that he mischievously thrusts under your nose. As Burr notes, "Cis-3-hexenol," he'll say, and as you cautiously sniff he'll add, 'Cut grass.' Two words, definitive. The molecule smells exactly of cut grass. A woman walks by on the street and he sniffs, says absently, 'L'Air du Temps.' So much benzyl salicylate.' In a restaurant he picks up his coffee, makes a face. 'Wow, lots of pyrazine.' Burr asked Turin about his love of smells, and Turin shrugged. 'Could be that I'm French, by upbringing. The idea that things should be slightly dirty, overripe, slightly fecal is everywhere in France. Rotten cheese and dirty sheets. A perfumer one day asked me, 'Est-ce que vous avez senti some molecule or other?' And I said no, I'd never smelled that molecule, what'd it smell like? And he considered this gravely and replied, 'ça sent la femme qui se néglige.' It smells of the woman who neglects herself." The reader learns that from the age of 6 and 7 Turin was making the adults in his life uncomfortable with his amazing ability to render smells in concrete human language.

It was when in his twenties Turin published a collection of exquisitely poetic and strongly opinionated perfume reviews ("Gucci 'Rush' smells like a person; to be exact, thanks to the milky lactone molecule, it smells like an infant's breath mixed with his mother's hair spray") that those in command of the perfume industry took notice. Was he an industrial spy? ("Mugler's brilliant 'Angel' is the taxonomy of great dessert cuisine re imagined by the chemist and botanist.") Who did he work for? Turin had his passport; they opened their doors, and he entered the secret, fascinating world of the creation of perfume molecules, a world ruled by the Big Boys, the six giant conglomerates that make the perfumes of Donna Karan and Armani and Calvin Klein and Dior. And there, gradually, disbelievingly, he discovered these people didn't know how smell worked. No one did. In fact, smell should be impossible.

What Burr does, with breathtaking clarity, grace and a large dose humor in The Emperor of Scent is craft a brilliant thriller from a story of science, perfume, billions of dollars in industrial secrets, egos, and powerful and vested interests in London, Paris, Moscow, India, and the Côte d'Azur. The pages turn at Eurostar speed. Turin plunged into the mystery of smell and emerged with a new theory, an outrageous theory on its face, that says there exists within the nose an electron machine gun inside it made of flesh that shoots electron bullets at smell molecules discerning, from the way they vibrate, what atoms compose them. Burr's makes clear his belief that Turin deserves a Nobel for his multidisciplinary investigation into the science of smell. The chase and the fun lie in the presentation of each clue, each odd piece of the puzzle (the molecules that give "Chanel 5" its smell, the diode Turin invents out of egg white), and the incredible personalities toiling in labs around the world.

Burr makes implicit his encouragement for readers to come to their own conclusions about the Vibration theory, the aesthetics of the greatest perfumes, and about the nature of truth. As Luca Turin observes at the close of this tour-de-force, "I'm finding that truth is actually a developing quantity. I mean, I always believed this was true, but now I discover that I always have room for more belief. No matter how absolutely dead certain I was that this theory was right, every time I smell more proof, I believe in it even more."

In this issue of Bold Type, Chandler Burr reads from The Emperor of Scent, provides a Top Ten List of Perfumes, and is interviewed by Wilfrid Azencoth. The first chapter of The Emperor of Scent is also available for your reading pleasure.

Catherine McWeeney

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  Photo credit: Curtis Kelley

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