The Senses and Riviera Gold
A recent discussion about my next contract (and how long it would be before I could jaunt off to Paris, sigh…) had me reflecting on how dependent I am on the use of the senses to provide what writers call the “telling detail.”
I have a scene in Castle Shade (no, I’m not going to give you a spoiler here) where all Russell’s senses—the taste of new grapes, the smell of the gardener, the cool dapple of shade on her skin, the sight of Holmes’ long fingers and the cat blinking in the sun—come together in a flash of what she knows is going to be one of those lingering, vivid, Proustian memories we all have. (Although of course, this being a mystery, the scene also contains a clue.)
Thinking about it, after the conversation with my editor and re-reading that scene in the copyedit, I realized that I tend to be sparing in my use of sensory information, saving it for moments when a smell or taste can underscore some element of the story. That element may be plot, or a character’s mood or deeper nature. Unexpected details—jarring, troubling—can be used to undermine the security a reader had up to that point, and suggest that all is not as it seems. Sensory detail can even foreshadow a larger world, as in the beginning of Riviera Gold, when Mrs Hudson is a young woman arriving at a ball—
The warm air smelled of honey.
The air outside had been sharp with the usual London stinks of horse dung and coal-smoke and rain, making the Duke’s townhouse a welcoming refuge. Granted, by the end of the night the pleasure would be reversed, with exhausted, footsore dancers stumbling away from the smell of sweat and the stifling miasma of women’s perfumes and men’s hair-oil. But for now, drifting from portico to cloak-room, hallway to the ballroom itself, all was promise and sparkle and the sweet aroma of beeswax candles.
—since many readers of Riviera Gold are quite aware that in the world of Mary Russell, honey means the beekeeper, Sherlock Holmes, who in that scene lies some years in the future.
When Russell wakes in her Riviera hotel, crisp linen sheets against her skin and the rhythmic sound of a gardener’s rake on gravel assure her (and us) that she’s in a place of pampered luxury. The odors of salt water and jasmine, the sounds of birdsong, rustling palm fronds, and the music of sailboat rigging in the distance places us on the shoreline of Monaco, while the smell of hot leaves with the drone of cicadas makes the hill Russell is climbing feel even steeper and more exposed to the sun. When the cloy of death in Mrs Hudson’s home is replaced by the sharp odors of Jeyes Fluid, sunshine, and lemon—the reader’s lungs feel cleared as well.
But sensory detail is tricky, and should be used sparingly. If s sensation is not universal, the writer needs to provide hints: without the sunshine and the lemon, would most 21st century readers know what Jeyes Fluid evokes, or what emotional reaction they should feel at a Charlie Parker record? It also depends on placement: sand between one’s toes brings up the beach, yes—but does the reader instantly know if the character is enjoying it, or finding it a source of considerable irritation? It has to be deft: if I can’t find THE exact sensation that provides a missing element, maybe it’s better to go on without it? And it had to be the right timing: if the plot is moving along briskly, now is not the time to veer into any but the briefest of sensory reflections.
There is nothing like sensory input to provide “the telling detail”—a small thing that casts light on everything around it. Walking into a room that smells of furniture polish and cigars instantly tells us that we’re in some kind of a men’s club, in a way that a lengthy description of the furniture and lighting cannot. And warm air that smells of honey—to a woman with Sherlock Holmes lying in her future—can carry with it more weight than simply the presence of expensive Victorian candles.
So I’m curious. Was there any particular “telling detail” that caught your mind’s eye in Riviera Gold?