Clementine is a seventy-two year-old reformed con artist with a penchant for impeccably tailored suits. Her life of crime has led her from the uber-wealthy perfume junkies of belle epoque Manhattan, to the scented butterflies of Costa Rica, to the spice markets of Marrakech, and finally the bordellos of Paris, where she settles down in 1930 and opens a shop bottling her favorite extracts for the ladies of the cabarets.
Now it’s 1941 and Clem’s favorite haunt, Madame Boulette’s, is crawling with Nazis, while Clem’s people–the outsiders, the artists, and the hustlers who used to call it home–are disappearing. Clem’s first instinct is to go to ground–it’s a frigid Paris winter and she’s too old to put up a fight. But when the cabaret’s prize songbird, Zoe St. Angel, recruits Clem to steal the recipe book of a now-missing famous Parisian perfumer, she can’t say no. Her mark is Oskar Voss, a Francophile Nazi bureaucrat, who wants the book and Clem’s expertise to himself. Hoping to buy the time and trust she needs to pull off her scheme, Clem settles on a novel strategy: Telling Voss the truth about the life and loves she came to Paris to escape.
Complete with romance, espionage, champagne towers, and haute couture, this full-tilt sensory experience is a dazzling portrait of the underground resistance of twentieth-century Paris and a passionate love letter to the power of beauty and community in the face of insidious hate.
If you’re picturing me in some ladylike frock printed with posies, lace at the collar, don’t. I’m not done up that way. I began wearing trousers long before we ladies were allowed. You’ll find me in tweed and neckties, shirtsleeves and cuff links, fedoras and porkpies.
People sometimes say, She’s still somewhat handsome, and I think they mean it as a compliment.
“Are you whoever you are when you’re dressed,” a fellow asked me many, many years ago—decades, probably—a bourbon in one hand, his other hand toying with the button of my suspenders, “or are you whoever you are when you’re naked?”
I’ve had aliases. Sometimes I committed my crimes as a man, sometimes as a woman, sometimes as a woman in a man’s clothes. I don’t think of myself as dishonest, though. Never did. I’ve told lies, yes, but you can’t call me a liar just for being different. I’m an actor, if anything. I’m none of those people I pretended to be. Or, better yet, I’m all of them. And I have a good heart, and I’m a damn sight kinder than most of the saps I’ve snookered. When I was famous for a time, I’d be doing you a favor to filch your fine goods. People practically begged me to fleece them so they could boast of it. They’d pay me double the worth of whatever I took, just for the bragging rights.
I haven’t dragged my tuxedo out in years, and though I’ve never much minded the scent of mothballs, I’ve doused myself, lapel to sock, in a perfume I’ve bottled new for the occasion—the pretty, powdery stink of fresh-plucked mimosa smuggled up from the farms south of here, from the unoccupied zones, snuck right past the border by my underground spice merchant. This illegal perfume is my little slap on the nose to any Nazi who comes sniffing around my throat.
Now we’ve been invited back, we Parisians, to some of the clubs, some of the parties, some of the playgrounds we got kicked out of when our invaders invaded. They need us drunk and happy and batting our lashes at the enemy. They need Paris to be Paris. They need the city they stole to be something worth stealing after all.
It’s all pretend, but that’s fine, because I was always my most charming when I lied.
Excerpted from The Perfume Thief by Timothy Schaffert. Copyright © 2021 by Timothy Schaffert. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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