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April 30 2008 1:42 PM

The Sweet Smell of Success

The mysterious art of writing about perfume.

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That is perfect. It's casual and indirect but uncannily precise: a little poem about a glossy scent. There are hundreds of equally inspired passages in Perfumes: The Guide, though not all of them are quite so terse. Here is Turin's full review of a perfume called Sacrebleu: "If you travel at night on Europe's railways, near big stations you can sometimes see lights the size a teacup nestled between the rails, shining the deepest mystical blue-purple light through a filthy Fresnel glass. They appear to be permanently on, suggesting that the message they convey the train driver is an eternal truth. Since childhood I have fancied the notion that it may not be a trivial one like 'Buffers ahead' but something numinous and unrelated to duty, perhaps 'Life is beautiful' or some such. Sacrebleu has the exact feel of those lights, a low hum that may be eclipsed by diurnal clamor but rules supreme when, at 3 a.m., you know you're looking into your true love's eyes even though you can't see them." I don't know what Sacrebleu smells like, but I'll bet he's right.

Those are some of the raves. The denunciations tend to be quick and deadly, like a serpent's bite. One perfume is described as "a shrill little floral that feels like music heard through someone else's headphones," and another begins, "The bathrooms in hell smell like this." And sometimes the authors seem to drift a little, and so much the better. Here is the entirety of Tania Sanchez's notes on Dior Addict—one of my very favorite short reviews ever written about anything: "I liked it very much in Macy's when I went there drunk one day, and told everyone afterward I found the perfect bourbon vanilla with orange blossom, as if it'd been a life quest. Sadly the bourbon was all me."

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As with wine, again, perfume worship is wide open to snobbery and pretense. And, yes, it's all a matter of taste, but then, so are many things that matter. I should report that Turin and Sanchez have a preference for Chanel and Guerlain, but that strikes me as a reasonable call; and they decry most celebrity fragrances, but they're not against the idea altogether. Sarah Jessica Parker's Lovely earns some real praise, even David Beckham's Intimately gets a few compliments, and Britney Spears' Believe gets a higher rating than Lalique's Le Perfum. (Of the latter: "Vile, cheap, obnoxiously chemical, it sits somewhere between Allure and Amarige. I hope to live long enough to see this sort of faceless dreck wiped off the face of the earth. Nice bottle.") And they hold Stetson, of all things, in especially high regard. ("It's gorgeous," Sanchez writes, "as rugged and masculine as the lingerie level at Saks Fifth Avenue, and about ten bucks per ounce.")

It's hard not to keep quoting from Perfume, but I'll stop here. It's hard, too, to keep from complimenting it, so I'll include one small complaint. The book is organized somewhat haphazardly: Perfumes are listed in alphabetical order, but there's no index to speak of, and if you're looking for an easy way to find, say, all the perfumes by Bulgari, or all the florals, or even to distinguish the men's fragrances from the women's, you're out of luck. I hope this will be corrected in the next edition. I hope there will be a next edition. There are hundreds of new fragrances introduced every year. I have no interest in smelling them all, but I'm looking forward to reading about them.

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.