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I was talking to my granddaughter the other day about serendipity. Naturally, it had to do with books and a bookstore. It also had to do with my book series, and about bird feathers in particular.

By the way, according to my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford University Press, 1973), the word serendipity is defined as the “faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident”, and originates in 1754 with the British historian Horace Walpole, who wrote a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip, the heroes of which “were always making discoveries by accidents and sagacity” of things they were not in quest of”. (Vol II., p. 1946)

Here is the bookstore:

Lawrence Old & Used Books, 41st and Dunbar; seen better days; is it even still in business?

As you can see, it’s a second hand shop. It used to be open regularly prior to the pandemic. Now if it’s open at all, I’ve not noticed. My guess is that the store is a placeholder, waiting for investors or the right moment for replacement. The corner is too valuable to remain as a single story building, and development (four story commercial/ residential mixes) is happening all around it. Sad to see, but as it should be, I guess. (By the way, here’s a tribute to all of Vancouver’s former antiquarian bookstores; quite a list although, when the list was published, Lawrence was not yet on it)

The point is I was walking by several weeks ago, and spotted a box of well-used books lying outside. Were these donated to the store, but didn’t make the cut? Or were they unwanted throwaways and simply left behind? Most days there’s no box at all and since there’s no one to question, it remains a mystery. Whatever the case, lying on top was a book by an author familiar to me about a character also familiar to me (any many other readers I suspect):

Here is the book:

Avon Books, New York, 1993

I’ll get back to this book in a bit; in the meantime, let me return to Horace Walpole.

According to theteknologist website, The Three Princes of Serendip originates with a Persian tale of the early 1300’s. An English version then came about by way of Italy and France:

“This English version of the story originated from ‘Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo’ published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in 1557. Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Christophero Armeno, who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian, adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau’s Hasht-Bihisht of 1302. The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations.”

It seems that Serendip was the Perso-Arabic name for Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Walpole, having recollected the part of the tale in which the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel, coined the word “serendipity”.

The fairy tale is long and based on clever riddles and acute observational skills (worthy of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes). The website summarizes the entire story (much too long for a post; I’d encourage anyone who wants to know more to check out the website). From this summary, here is the section that appealed to Walpole:

“In the course of their wanderings, [the three princes] finally entered the distant Persian kingdom of the Emperor Beramo. Outside his capital they met a camel driver who had lost his camel. He wondered if they had seen it, and purely as a joke the princes supplied the camel driver with all sorts of semi-contrived details. ‘Was your camel blind in one eye?’ ‘Yes,’ said the camel driver. And the second prince said, ‘Did your camel have a tooth missing?’ ‘Yes,’ said the owner. The third asked if the camel were lame. ‘Yes,’ said the driver. Misled when he heard these details, the driver retraced the Princes’ steps along the trail, but needless to say, did not find his camel. When he encountered them again, he accused them of deception, but the first prince said, ‘Your camel carried a load of butter on one side and of honey on the other.’ The second said that the camel also carried a woman, and the third prince added that she was pregnant. The camel driver, convinced that anyone this well-informed must have stolen his camel, had the princes jailed as camel thieves.

“When Emperor Beramo heard about the crime, he sentenced the princes to death. In their innocence they then confessed they had played a joke on the camel driver, and that their imaginations must have gotten the better of them because some of their descriptions happened to coincide with the truth. Later, when the real camel was found, the emperor released the princes. He then inquired how they could have guessed so many details. The brothers, in turn, confessed the following camel story: ‘I thought he must have been blind in the right eye, because only the grass along the left side of the trail was eaten even though it was not as thick as that over on the right side.’ ‘I guessed that the camel lacked a tooth because the way the grass cuds were chewed indicated that a tooth was missing.’ ‘I guessed that the camel was lame because only three footprints were clearly indicated, whereas the fourth print was dragged.’

“They continued, ‘I guessed that the camel had a load of butter on one side because there were many ants on one side of the trail, and I thought he carried honey on the other side because many flies gathered along the other side of the trail.’ ‘I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman because I noted a footprint and found some female urine near where the camel had knelt.’ And the third prince concluded, ‘I guessed that the woman was pregnant because the handprints nearby showed that she had helped herself up with her hands after urinating.'”

Theteknologist (“Random thoughts on the internet, technology and more”) defines serendipity as “the art of discovering new things by observing, and learning from encountering unexpected information.” I think this is a great definition, and describes what occurred in my case.

By the way, google the word serendipity and you come up with 36,000,000 results, including a winery, a spa, a restaurant, a line of organic clothing, a school and much, much more, including a 2001 romantic comedy film called Serendipity (starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale).

So what was the point of serendipity in Cornwell’s book?

My readers will know that my principal heroine is a duck, an eider duck to be exact. The key piece of evidence in Cruel and Unusual turns out to be a feather. And not just any feather but one from the common eider duck, as used in the best comforters, sleeping bags and down-filled jackets (pp. 257-60). It turns out these feathers are quite unique in shape and quality (something I did not know).

An excerpt of the conversation between Dr. Kay Scarpetta (Cornwell’s intrepid chief medical examiner/sleuth) and an FBI analyst follows:

“So, we’ll try the common eider. Okay. There’s consistency in pigmentation,” he said, staring intensely at the screen. “And, let’s see, an average of two nodes located distally along the barbules. Plus, the streamlining for extra good insulating quality – and that’s important if you’re swimming around in the Arctic Ocean. I think this is it, the Somateria mollissima, typically found in Iceland, Norway, Alaska, and the Siberian shores. I’ll run another check with SEM,” he added, referring to the scanning electron microscopy.

“To scan for what?”

“Salt crystals.”

“Of course,” I said, fascinated. “Because eider ducks are saltwater birds.”

“Exactly. And interesting ones at that, a noteworthy example of exploitation. In Iceland and Norway, their breeding colonies are protected from predators and other disruptions so that people can collect down with which the female lines her nest and covers her eggs. The down is then cleaned and sold to manufacturers.”

“Manufacturers of what?”

“Typically, sleeping bags and comforters.”

There’s much more about the nature of feathers and how they are distinguishable; again, too much detail for this post. Anyone interested can read the book. By the way, just a few days back, I was shown photos of one of those Icelandic eider duck farms by a friend who visited the country this past summer. Yet more serendipity!

Finally, as for Horace Walpole, the author of the very first English language Gothic novel (1764, well before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), The Castle of Otranto, I’d say he’s worth a post on his own. I’ll turn my mind and pen to that in the months to come.

Cover Photo by Hoshi Moshi on Unsplash