I fully admit to judging books by their covers when selecting leisure reading. In the case of John Oehler’s Aphrodesia, “sexual frenzy” promises the kind of romance novel content I can really do without. Fortunately, looking at books for this blog is an objective undertaking, otherwise I would have missed this thoroughly engaging mystery novel set in a masterful rendering of the perfume industry.
The story’s protagonist is Eric Foster, the golden boy of the perfumery program at the Osmothèque’s sister school ISIPCA (Institut supérieur international du parfum, de la cosmétique et de l'aromatique alimentaire). To the envy — and alienation — of all but three of his peers, Foster is a gifted nose and a creative genius. But to the dismay of his mentor, a master perfumer who holds to the highest industry ideals, Foster’s ambition is to recreate the perfume worn by the Queen of Sheba to seduce King Solomon — an aphrodisiac, regarded as a fool's errand. Except that Foster’s formula works. But just after his classmates prove the frightening degree of its efficacy, Foster's key ingredient (spoiler: it’s oudh) is stolen from the school archives and he is expelled. Foster resigns himself to a dead-end job testing new car smell for a New York City chemical firm, until a wave of passion-fueled homicides all have one thing in common: a knockoff of his perfume.
With Aphrodesia, Oehler takes readers through both ends of the mass market perfume lab, as well as the crime lab of the NYPD, and he does it well — no small feat for someone who doesn’t have prior experience with perfume. Oehler does, however, have a science background, and is clearly no stranger to deep and diligent research. He peppers the text with smart details — like the use of argon gas to seal out oxygen in archival perfume bottles, and the price differences between natural and synthetic clove. Descriptions of raw materials are nicely restrained and never florid: shiitake mushrooms, for example, have a “dense, rich, animalic aroma much stronger than the essence of truffle.” It works to great effect, allowing the imagination to run free without tripping over odd or frequent details.
As for the book’s other components, I do love a good mystery and Aphrodesia delivers a satisfying tale of intrigue. I’m by no means a connoisseur of the genre, but the plot is compelling and solid, and the characters well-developed and believable. But given that those characters are embattled by a perfume that takes passion to murderous new heights, there is a lot of sex throughout. It’s not terribly protracted or gratuitous, at least in the sense that it builds the characters and advances the story. Personally I don’t find adult content objectionable but I don’t really care to read it, and if you're like me the good news is that it's easy to skim through the naughty bits without missing anything crucial. It's also easy to get sucked into the story and devour Aphrodesia in a day, so unless you find the plot totally off-putting this is a must-read.
Aphrodesia: A Novel of Suspense
By John Oehler. 358 pp.
CreateSpace, 2012. $13.95.