When I was growing up, my parents rented a room to a lady who was working at a store in our town. It was shortly after the end of World War II. Her name was Margaret, and she came from a tiny rural town twenty miles away. I imagine our city had more opportunities to work compared to jobs in hers. We called her “Aunt Margaret,” and eventually she moved back to her home when I was still in elementary school. My family went to visit her and her two sisters, and the one memory I have from those visits is the smell of sugar cookies in their kitchen. Even now, that smell can take me back to that small town, that kitchen with the linoleum floors and tea towels hanging from the bar on the sink, and “Aunt Margaret,” who has since passed away.
Although many memories of my early years have disappeared, I remember clearly the smell of those cookies. That connection between smell and memory led me to a perfume that plays many roles in my upcoming book, A Death at Tippitt Pond.
First, however, I wondered why olfaction—or our sense of smell—is clearly connected to memory.
To use a layman’s explanation, I’ll simply say that the first processing of smell inside the nose connects directly to two parts of the brain that are strongly associated with emotions and memories: the amygdala and hippocampus. Smells pass a lot of other areas of the brain but utilize particularly these two. Studies show smell triggers memories more clearly than visual images because of how the information from this sense is processed in our brains. No wonder the perfume industry sells their products with this concept.
What does this have to do with my mystery, A Death at Tippitt Pond?
Creating the Past
Beth Russell, my protagonist, lives in the present day, but her life becomes connected to people who existed in the 1960s and 1970s. What a fantastic era of excess and craziness! I had so much fun creating some of the artifacts of that time, especially since I’d lived in that period.
I think of this as “past history,” but to me, it doesn’t seem that long ago.
I researched clothes, music, books, and historical events. After all those research areas, I focused on a smell. That’s right. A smell. In my teenage years, the popular perfume was called “Chantilly.” Packaged in a pink box, it was the rage of our preteen and teenage years. Guaranteed to find you a man because of its haunting and sensual fragrance, Chantilly was the perfect symbol of my fictional Melanie Tippitt, who wore it during her teenage years. Anyone growing up in the 1950s and 1960s remembers this perfume.
Back then, despite the women’s revolution, small town girls in the middle of the country were still tuned in to finding a man and raising a family. Chantilly was the scent of preference, worn by my friends and me. The perfume-maker connected it to love and marriage in their ads at that time. You can see that in this vintage ad from 1964.
A Brief History of Chantilly
I didn’t realize this perfume was first made in 1941 and produced by the French perfume company, Houbigant. During the war, women who worked in the factories wore Chantilly during their evenings because it made them feel more feminine. Its marketing was all about being romantic and sensual, like the French lace it was named for. That lace was used in the wedding veils of royal brides.
In the early 1990s, Houbigant filed for bankruptcy, and Dana Perfumes acquired Chantilly in 1999. It is still marketed in pink boxes, bringing back memories for baby boomers like me. Recently, I bought a set of cologne, power, and lotion just to check out the scent. Yes, I remembered it.
Chantilly and A Death at Tippitt Pond
Chantilly’s first appearance in my upcoming mystery is a haunting description of Beth’s reaction when she first smells its fragrance.
“She sprayed a little of the perfume into the air. The fragrance was strong and powdery, with a scent of orange blossoms and lemon. Maybe a hint of vanilla too, Beth mused. She closed her eyes, taking in the aroma. Over her came a softness, a tenderness, a comfort as if she never need worry about anything ever again. Her whole body relaxed. It was hard to describe: a feeling of euphoria, lightness, peace. Joy spread through her, and her breathing slowed down. It was a sense of being held in someone’s arms—safe, cared for, and loved.”
Sound a little spooky? Why is this memory important, and what does it represent in Beth Russell’s life? You’ll find the answers to those questions this summer. If you lived during the 1960s and 1970s, this upcoming mystery will be a trip down memory lane … except for a murder or two.
(A Death at Tippitt Pond will be available June 15, 2019, from Encircle Publications. And, of course, I’ll bring some Chantilly to book signings!)