When I cracked open the novel Damage Control, I knew I’d have some good reading ahead. The dedication began, “This one’s for the perfumistas.” Add that the book’s author, Denise Hamilton (shown above right), is the Los Angeles Times’ fragrance columnist as well as a bestselling crime writer, and I was ready to call in sick and spend the day on the couch, book in hand.
Damage Control is about Maggie Silver, a budding perfumista and PR flack. She works for the Blair Company, a public relations firm that handles the big jobs. If a company wants word spread about its new potato chips, it can go elsewhere. The Blair Company steps in, for example, when a married governor knocks up his housekeeper then lives a double life with the resulting love child, or when a similarly married governor professes to have found his soul mate in South America.
In Damage Control, a senator’s aide is found murdered in circumstances that don’t reflect well on the senator. Maggie Silver is assigned to his case. The complication is that Maggie was good friends with the senator’s daughter, Annabelle, until Annabelle was sexually assaulted when they were teens. Maggie’s relationship with Annabelle was borderline obsessive — Annabelle had the cultured, coddled life Maggie desired (not to mention the mother with the bureau stocked with Guerlain Vol de Nuit). Covering this case means Maggie must deal with past as well as current puzzles.
Damage Control features three mysteries — who killed the senator’s aide; what really happened to Annabelle; and whether or not the Blair Company is corrupt — as well as subplots concerning Maggie’s love life and her mother’s health. Hint: the love life subplot involves a significant scene aided and abetted by Guerlain Mitsouko.
While Damage Control is a crime novel with real grit and suspense, there’s no graphic violence, and the one sex scene is PG-13. Hamilton is often described as a noir writer, but I didn’t find Damage Control particularly downbeat. Mixed with the novel’s creepy psychological edge are the almost screwball characters of Maggie's mother and her mother’s shotgun toting friend, Earlene. “To write about really dark subject matter, you have to go there in your head,” Hamilton says. After working as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times for ten years, she said she’s seen enough violence to keep the explicit ugliness to a minimum.
Besides the novel’s main characters, one of Damage Control's major players is its setting, Los Angeles. “Los Angeles is a muse to me, a femme fatale,” Hamilton says. She says she finds the city “vexing and bewitching” as its neighborhoods change over the years, hiding a rich and wide history in tucked-away neighborhoods housing everyone from immigrants to Hollywood celebrities.
But let’s get back to perfume. Besides Vol de Nuit and Mitsouko, Damage Control includes references to Eau de Guerlain, a thrift store score of Donna Karan Chaos, Serge Lutens Chergui, Yves Saint Laurent Kouros, and Christian Dior Jules, among others. How did Hamilton’s editor and readers respond to all that juice?
Hamilton says the perfume was a big hit. “My agent even asked for a perfume recommendation for her daughter who liked Calandre and wanted a substitute.” Fragrance lovers have been turning up at her readings, and finding some garage sale minis in her purse, Hamilton supplemented one reading with sniffs of Fendi Theorama, Vivienne Westwood Boudoir, and Robert Piguet Fracas extrait.
Like many of us, Hamilton has loved perfume for years, but the internet fanned those flames. Hamilton’s mother was a White Russian who fled Russia for Paris before moving to the United States. Hamilton’s first language was French. Her mother wore Rochas Madame Rochas, Rochas Femme, Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Worth Je Reviens, Chanel No. 5, and Chanel Cristalle and growing up, Hamilton experimented with them all (drooling yet?). She saw perfume as “part of the ritual of getting dressed” and “something I did for myself.”
About five years ago, Hamilton found a bottle of Chaos in a thrift store for $29.95. It smelled strange and assertive to her, and she didn’t like it right away. Heavy orientals really weren’t her thing. She did some research and found Chaos was selling for a fortune online, so she bought the bottle and set it on her dresser while she figured out how to put it on eBay. In the meantime, every day or so she spritzed some on. Distaste turned to love, and Hamilton was hot on the trail of narcotic, heavier fragrances.
When Perfumes: The Guide came out, Hamilton discovered Makeupalley. Hello rabbit hole. Through sniffing, she tapped into a deep love of vintage fragrances — vintage Caron and Guerlain in particular. She describes opening a bottle of vintage fragrance as unlocking an Egyptian genie from the bottle. “It’s like these apparitions,” she says, “they don’t exist in this time any more.”
She started to stake out estate sales, antique malls, and swap meets for perfume. Some of her favorites today include Caron Parfum Sacré, Fendi Theorama, Caron Alpona extrait, Tauer Perfumes L’air du désert Marocain, Comme des Garçons Avignon, vintage Christian Dior Diorellla, vintage Caron Nuit de Noël extrait, Serge Lutens Fumérie Turque, Serge Lutens Sarrasins, vintage Grès Cabochard, and Aramis.
When her success as a crime novelist took off, Hamilton left the Los Angeles Times to write full time. A year and a half ago she had lunch with one of her old newspaper editors and brought some perfume samples. “You should have a perfume columnist,” she said. “The New York Times does.” The editor said, “You’re really into this perfume thing, aren’t you?” Hamilton's monthly perfume column was born.
A natural step was to write Damage Control, a crime novel with a perfumista heroine. Damage Control is a stand-alone novel, but we can always hope that with Hamilton’s background, fragrance won’t be a stranger in her future work.