Base Notes, Lara Elena Donnelly (Thomas & Mercer 978-1-542-03070-0, $15.95, tp, 408pp) January 2022.
Lara Elena Donnelly’s Base Notes appears initially (if you ignore the dead body in the brief introduction) to be about perfumer Vic Fowler’s unique ability to capture memories in scent. Vic is struggling to keep her small perfume company afloat in a hostile financial environment, and a side hustle selling these special perfumes to high end customers has become crucial. The problem is that the concoctions require very difficult, and illegal to obtain special ingredients. Okay, I’ll just say it: Vic has to murder people in order to create the memory scents. (The book’s description refers to this as ‘‘artisanal murder.’’) These acts make the perfumer someone who has not only a magical ability with fragrances, but is also a surprisingly effective assassin. With money issues looming large as the book opens, she decides it’s time to take on another job. Things quickly spin out of control, however, when she looks for some killing assistance, and along with willing friends finds herself in a kind of trouble that is hardly worth the financial payoff.
Donnelly doesn’t waste much time here explaining how Vic came to have her special ability or why she decided to sell it. There is an intriguing backstory to her first murder years earlier, but just how many people she has killed is unclear, and I remain puzzled by exactly how that killing led to a vial of perfume. Base Notes concerns itself more with the increasingly intricate plot supporting the current round of murders. Vic’s company is going under, and she wants to save it; her friends/acquaintances are dealing with various other stressors, which are somewhat common 21st-century problems, especially in a city like New York; and they all become easily convinced that the world is set up to destroy them. In short order bodies start piling up, and Vic’s perfumery is soon concocting some unique scents. Readers will not be surprised that everything falls apart; the only questions are how many bodies will end up in the pile and who comes out on top.
Base Notes has its greatest strength in Vic, a compelling murderer in the vein of other brainy serial killers who manage to seduce in more ways than one. Watching her switch from friend to foe in an instant, while not unexpected, is plenty of fun. Of the supporting characters, everyone falls in line a little too quickly, although that might be wishful thinking on my part. (I’d like to believe people wouldn’t commit murder with such minor prodding.) A private detective conveniently misses obvious clues (a lot of people go missing around Vic), so she is largely left without an effective foil to tangle with, which is a disappointment. Overall, Base Notes is a bloody novel of suspense that is far more about the perils of capitalism than anything else. To be honest, I think Vic would have been a killer even if she didn’t have her special perfume ability. Murder is her true talent, along with cajoling others to succumb to their own dark proclivities.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the April 2022 issue of Locus.
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