Sunday, May 16, 2010

Serendipity and the Origin of the Mourner in Richard Stark's The Mourner

The Mourner, the fourth of Richard Stark's Parker novels, is about the theft of a 15th century French statue. As part of the telling of the story of the statue's history, Ralph Harrow - the father of Bett, Parker's current squeeze, uses the September 1958 issue of Horizon magazine:

Harrow licked his lips and glanced at his daughter, but she was no help. “To begin with, I'd like you to read a brief article in this magazine.” He said magazine, but it was obviously the book he meant. He held it up, and Parker saw above the picture a title: Horizon.And below the picture a date: September, 1958. So it was a magazine that looked like a book. Harrow opened the magazine-​book, muttering to himself, “Page sixty-​two.” He found the page and extended the open book.

Stark then gives even more specific details:

This article concerns a group of eighty-​two statuettes in a monument at Dijon, in France.” He turned the book around so Parker could see. “You see the title? 'The Missing Mourners of Dijon', by Ferdinand Auberjonois.”

In general, the Parker novel do not feature overly specific descriptions of much of anything. So all this detail got me wondering if this article about the statues was real or not (I knew of Horizon magazine - in fact I came across a bunch of copies at a used booksale several months ago but barely looked through them). And it turns out, Stark did his homework:

I had never heard of the Mourners before so I thought they could have been made up. (Whenever Stark/Westlake wrote about African gems I always assumed they were made up. I know he likes to create fictional African and South American countries so made up statues seemed par for the course.) But on page 62 there is the article by Ferdinand Auberjonois that Parker refuses to read.

This is not much of discovery. Anyone so inclined could have easily found this out (and probably already has). But in a great case of serendipity, 37 of the real Mourners are on tour in the US for the first time right now:

As best I can tell, the Mourner in The Mourner is not on display.

I noticed two other things while looking at the table of contents for the mentioned issue of Horizon. One is that Harrow (the town) is in an article and I am guessing that is where Stark got the name to give to Bett's father.

The second thing I noticed takes a wild leap of imagination to make (and is probably nothing more than coincidence) is that there is an article by Freya STARK in the same issue. The first Parker story was published in 1959. If Donald Westlake read the magazine in September of 1958, did he get his new pen name from here? Yes, it is a stretch. But he did get the idea for his fourth book here - so maybe it is not that much of a stretch.

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