Thursday, May 15, 2014

A License to Smell

Ian Fleming was a very smell-aware writer. His James Bond novels are shot through with olfactory observations. Here’s a passage in From Russia with Love:
Bond’s thoughts were interrupted by the stewardess. ‘Fasten your seat-belts, please.’ As she spoke the plane dropped sickeningly and soared up again with an ugly note of strain in the scream of the jets. The sky outside was suddenly black. Rain hammered on the windows. There came a blinding flash of blue and white light and a crash as if an anti-aircraft shell had hit them, and the plane heaved and bucketed in the belly of the electric storm that had ambushed them out of the mouth of the Adriatic.

Bond smelt the smell of danger. It is a real smell, something like the mixture of sweat and electricity you get in an amusement park arcade. Again the lightning flung its hand across the windows. Crash! It felt as if they were the centre of the thunder clap. Suddenly the plane seemed incredibly small and frail.
Fleming is especially keen on body odor. Here he uses it to tee up a wisecrack from Bond:
Bond washed and shaved under the amused eyes of Tatiana. She approved of the fact that he put no oil on his hair. ‘It is a dirty habit,’ she said. ‘I was told that many Europeans have it. We would not think of doing it in Russia. It dirties the pillows. But it is odd that you the West do not use perfume. All our men do.’

‘We wash,’ said Bond dryly.
And Fleming gives Bond some of his olfactory awareness. In the novel’s final scene, Bond enters a room at the Ritz Hotel in Paris expecting to find Colonel Rosa Klebb of the KGB. He is puzzled to find an old lady sitting and knitting. But something about her doesn’t add up.
Bond stared rudely into the woman’s face, examining it. It was an ugly face, toadlike, under the powder and under the tight cottage-loaf of white hair. The eyes were so light brown as to be almost yellow. The pale lips were wet and blubbery below the fringe of nicotine-stained moustache. Nicotine? Where were her cigarettes? The was no ashtray – no smell of smoke in the room.

Bond’s hand tightened again on his gun.

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