Perfume: The Story of a Murderer – Patrick Süskind

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer tells the life story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who was born on July 17, 1738 at a fish market in Paris. His mother plans to simply let him die, just like her previous 4 children did. However, she faints and at that moment Jean-Baptiste makes himself known with a loud scream. His mother is accused of multiple infanticide, she confesses and loses her head on the Place de Grève.

Jean-Baptiste is then baptised and assigned to a nurse. This woman discovers something terrifying about the child: he has no scent of his own. That is why she no longer wants him and he ends up with Madame Gaillard. Here Jean-Baptiste also discovers something strange: he has a very good nose. His sense of smell is very highly developed, he can detect everything from miles away and break down every smell into the finest particles. He is decently cared for, and at the age of 8 he is sold to a tanner. He does good work, and is given more and more freedom by his boss Grimal.

And then his sense of smell really develops. He wanders around Paris for days until he knows every nook and cranny. At a certain moment he is overcome by a wonderful, wonderful smell. This appears to come from a young red-haired girl. In an attempt to possess this scent, he strangles her and absorbs the scent. Now he decides he wants to become the greatest perfumer in the world. He convinces a local perfumer to hire him and learns the trade. He amazes this perfumer, Baldini, by creating masterful scents based on the feeling and takes him back to the top. In return, he obtains the journeyman’s license and Baldini teaches him the tricks of the trade.

But Grenouille is not yet satisfied. The technique he learned is not sufficient to extract odour from everything. He leaves Baldini and moves to Grasse. But during his journey, he moves away from human smells, which is so refreshing, that he continues to avoid them and eventually ends up on a mountain. He stays there for 7 years, living on the smells in his mind. Ultimately he decides to move on.

He goes to Montpellier, where he is mistaken for an animal. A scholar, de la Taillade-Espinasse, takes care of him and returns him to civilisation. Here Jean-Baptiste designs his fragrance for himself: a human scent. He tests this out, stays for a while to catch his breath and then leaves for Grasse, where he returns to work for Madame Arnulfi. Here he learns new techniques to extract scents from objects: distillation and enfleurage. These techniques also allow him to extract the scent of people. He then kills 24 virgins to create a perfect scent for himself.

The last murder, that of the red-haired Laure Richis, is the crowning achievement of his work. He has now created the ultimate perfume that makes everyone adore him. He is arrested and sentenced to death on a cross. However, when he is led to the scaffold, he sprinkles himself with the perfume and everyone goes into ecstasy. Suddenly people are convinced of his innocence and a big orgy ensues. So he escapes death. But at that moment he realises that no matter how good his perfume is, he will never smell himself and therefore never know who he is. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille wanted to be loved by all people, but now he realises that his only satisfaction comes from their hatred. He is now taken in by Laure Richis’ father, but he quickly leaves him and goes to Paris to die. He goes to the Cimetière des Innocents and at night he mingles with a group of 30 thieves and murderers, etc. He pours the entire bottle of perfume on himself and the group recoils out of respect for this beauty and out of deep amazement. After a few moments this turns into ecstasy and lust and they surround Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. After a few tense minutes, they attack him and tear him into 30 pieces. Each person takes their piece and devours it. When there is nothing left of Gernouille, they gather around the fire again, and after a while they smile. They are proud: for the first time in their lives they had done something out of love.

About the author

Before “The Perfume” I hadn’t heard of Patrick Süskind. Although his first work, a one-act play called “Der Kontrabass” from 1981, immediately provided his breakthrough. The play was performed more than 500 times in Germany and also had international success. Süskind was born in Ambach (Bavaria) on March 26, 1949. His father was a well-known journalist, so writing was already in his genes. He studied history in Munich, including 1 year in Aix-en-Porvence, France. There he learned the French language and culture.

His next major success was this 1985 novel. It is one of the most read German books in the world, translated into 41 languages and sold more than 12 million copies worldwide. Then “Die Taube” was published in 1987. He decided to isolate himself from the world and has since led a hermit’s life in Languedoc, France. He gives very few interviews, avoids publicity and has even declined several literary prizes.

In 1991, “Die Geschichte von Herrn Sommer”, his most autobiographical work with some scenes from his youth, was published. He then wrote “Three Stories” in 1995, the screenplay “Rossini – oder die mörderische Frage, wer mit wem schlief” which was made into a film in 1997 and his most recent work dates from 2005, entitled “Über Liebe und Tod”.

Another thing I thought was worth mentioning about this author is that in the 1980s he worked as a scriptwriter for, among others, “Kir Royal” and “Monaco Franze”.

Movie adaptation

“Perfume” was labeled unfilmable for a long time, and Süskind may have unknowingly reinforced this: for almost twenty years he refused to sell the film rights, because he was waiting for an offer from his favourite, Stanley Kubrick. After the death of this director, the German Bernd Eichinger managed to convince Süskind: the movie “Perfume” was released in 2006. Süskind was reportedly convinced because he got 10 million from this producer, known for, among others, “Der Untergang” and the movie adaptation of “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco. Süskind wrote a satirical screenplay about the tug-of-war for the rights to his novel, which was made into a movie in 1997 as well under the name “Rossini”. This film (by Helmut Dietl) is also partly autobiographical: a man who has written a bestseller but has no contact with the outside world.

I initially did not intend to watch the movie, limiting myself to the discussion of the novel and the author. I find that a movie adaptation very often disrupts, or even destroys, the magic of the novel. I eventually found the DVD in a thrift store and bought it anyway. I think the movie on its own is good: it creates a lot of suspense, mystery is created and the main characters and actions are intriguing. But compared to the novel, I don’t think it’s a good movie. This is understandable since Süskind writes very descriptively and the book is about the fleeting realm of scents, which is difficult to portray in a novel, let alone in a movie. The movie has a completely different atmosphere, it is more of a mystical thriller than the masterpiece that Süskind’s book is. I think the scenes in which Grenouille tries to convince Baldini, the perfumer, are very well filmed. The director has tried to portray in a very good way how Jean-Baptiste walks blindly and crisscrossing through the room and collects the necessary fragrances. I also think Grenouille’s nervous and jumpy character is very well depicted at times.

I have already said that I don’t think the movie is as successful compared to the book. Süskind characterises his characters based on their actions and also their thoughts. This is very difficult to portray in a movie, especially if you want to make a realistic movie and therefore do not use tricks (blurring images, thinking out loud, a confidant, etc.). I don’t think this would fit within the general atmosphere of the movie, it would take away some of the mystical and mythical atmosphere.


“Perfume” consists of 3 parts and each of these parts corresponds to a different main genre, in my opinion. The first part is more of a historical novel, the second more psychological and the last part is more of a crime novel. Each of the 3 parts also contains elements of the other genres, but these are the main genres in the parts. The share of the psychological novel and crime novel in particular should not be underestimated.

Historical novel

I’ll start with the historical novel. In the 20th century the historical novel experienced a revival. “Perfume” is not so much a traditional historical novel, but it still describes Paris in the 18th century very truthfully. In particular, class society, culture, daily life and the condition of the cities are depicted very visually. Patrick Süskind studied in France for a year and that is where he got his inspiration. He got to know the French culture and lifestyle. He was therefore able to represent this very well in the book. This historical novel also comes to the fore in the first chapter, where Süskind very movingly describes the situation in which Grenouille is born. Also later, when he ends up with Madame Gaillard, when he goes to work in the tannery and when he is accepted by Baldini, society is described very well.

Crime novel

It is most definitely a crime novel. The subtitle of the book says this clearly: “Perfume. The Story of a Murderer.” We follow the main character in his murders. The plot is not central, most murders are not even described. Only 2 murders, the first and the last, are written out in detail. But despite all this, it is indeed a crime novel. The main storyline is about Jean-Baptiste who grows up to become a perfumer and, because he wants to create the perfect perfume, a murderer. This is especially discussed in the last part because he is captured and tried there. In the last part, the people’s fear has just subsided, but the last murder flares it up again and they turn into a wild mob when Grenouille is shown to them. Here you will also find historical elements: the people ask the church to excommunicate the unknown murderer and they believe it works.

Psychological novel

The novel is clearly also psychological, especially the second part. This is the part where Grenouille passes the mountains on his way to Grasse and he then moves away from the human smells. He likes this very much and he then tries to find a place where there are no human smells at all. So he ends up on top of a mountain, where he finds a deep cave where neither man nor animal has been. He stays here for 7 years, surviving on a tiny water source and all kinds of small animals such as salamanders. While in his cave he falls into a kind of trance state, where all his bodily functions slow down and are reduced to an absolute minimum. At those moments he withdraws completely into his mind: his heart is a purple castle surrounded by walls in the middle of a desert. He lives there as king and creator of his own world consisting of scents. In his mind he is served by invisible servants who hand him a kind of album, consisting of all the scents he has collected in his life. This part is only mentioned minimally in the film, which I actually think is a shame, because this is very important to understand Grenouille’s psyche.

It is sometimes a bit difficult to really speak of a psychological novel here, because the main character actually shows little inner experience. He doesn’t think much, he just sets a goal in mind that he wants to achieve at all costs, namely creating the best perfume ever. His exceptional sense of smell is the means by which he wants to achieve this. He also wants to have his own body odour to fit in. That wonderful perfume could certainly do this, then he would be adored. When he reaches his goal, he experiences a gigantic anti-climax: he alone knows how good his perfume is, and the very thing that delights people so much. So although he achieves his goal, he is not satisfied. He is astonished at human ignorance. This ultimately leads him to commit suicide. Some may feel that suicide is not appropriate here, but I think it is appropriate. He douses himself with his perfume, knowing what this will do to those who will then tear him to pieces.

Happy reading and watching,

Loes M.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.