The Quaker by Liam McIlvanney – 2018

The Quaker‘The Quaker’ is the nickname given to a serial killer who has taken three female lives, ruined families, stymied the police, and terrorised a city.  The city in question is the “disintegrating city” of Glasgow in the late 1960s, and the prevailing culture of male prejudice, misogyny and corruption has been complicit in ‘The Quaker’ getting away with his crimes.

The character of ‘The Quaker’ is based on the real life, and still unidentified, serial killer ‘Bible John’, who killed three women after they had been dancing at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom.  In The Quaker, McIlvanney sends DI Duncan McCormack in some time after the murders, to write a report on the team who have failed to identify ‘The Quaker’, with a view to closing down the investigation.

McCormack is despised by the demoralised team, and initially more interested in getting back to his mission of bringing down the city’s gangster king pin, John McGlashan.  But as the book progresses, McCormack finds that McGlashan has been replaced by ‘The Quaker’ in his mental priorities.  And when ‘The Quaker’ strikes again and a man who McCormack considers the wrong man is taken into custody, he starts investigating the murders with vigour.

A breakthrough comes when McCormack considers the victims as persons with agendas, rather than objects for male adoration, disparagement or use, people who might talk about other things than their boyfriends “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? That’s all we’ve got to talk about.”  And when he realises his own shame: “And now we’d done the same, thought McCormack. None of us brave enough to look her in the face.”

A parallel storyline in The Quaker is provided by Alex Paton, a ‘peterman’ or safe cracker, who returns to Glasgow from London for a job and ends up embroiled in ‘The Quaker’ inquiry.  He provides some delightful passages, such as his realisation “… he was happier than he’d been in months” when on the run in the highlands, or his nostalgic wishing that Glasgow was still the city it was when he was 19, but: “There was no train that could carry you back to last week, never mind 1959.”

The Quaker is a sprawling novel, with McCormack grasping for understanding: “Who said it was a pattern?”, with thoughts flickering at the edge of his mind, wondering if he is right in considering “Murder as a work of art. A species of code.”  At one point he realises he has been reminded of prehistoric ‘bog people’ when looking at the photograph of one of the victims, people whose deaths historians weren’t sure were “murders, executions, or ceremonial killings.”

And that is one hell of a question. The Quaker is a work of fiction, so we get the Who and the How of the mystery in the end. But Why do men murder women in such horrible ways?  Why are men ashamed when their wives and girlfriends intrude into their domains, as the police are at a farewell function in the novel?  In The Quaker, we only hear women’s voices when they are dead; through the investigation their voices are seen as a distraction from the solid information a man might be able to provide.  And victims, women who are wives and mothers, are dismissed: “They were Magdelenes, officer. Women of low morals.”

As I started reading The Quaker, I was appalled and angry, and then I began to realise the “disintegrating city” was being depicted as an organism, a sick organism where a few powerful males are dictating the terms of belonging, resulting in the police being more interested in results than the truth, and all the blokes trying to safely fly under the radar, be “one of the lads.”  McCormack is no exception, he knows what it’s like to have to hide the truth to be accepted, but he does develop as the novel progresses.

The Quaker is a complex and disturbing read and extremely atmospheric: full of Scottish terminology, abandoned tenements and middens.  The plotting is skillful and it has a satisfying ending, and is a novel that will haunt me for some time to come. Towards the end McCormack comes out with the saddest line in the book: “And the woman? I don’t even know her name. Do you even know her name?”


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All Our Secrets by Jennifer Lane – 2017


Jennifer Lane & book

All was going pretty OK in the small town of Coongahoola, NSW, but then Gracie’s Dad moved out, the Believers arrived, and one by one the River Children started disappearing.

Coongahoola is home to 11-year-old Gracie, who lives with her Grandma Bett, her Mum, her philandering Dad, brother Elijah and infant twins Lucky and Grub.  The town’s only claim to fame is a notorious River Picnic held some years before All our secrets starts. Nine months after the picnic, a cluster of River Children were born, including Elijah, and many of these children don’t resemble the fathers they live with.

The River Picnic was down by the Bagooli River, which is where Martha Mills saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, and that’s what brought members of The Believers cult to Coongahoola. And when the River Children start to go, one by one, Saint Bede, the cult leader, falls under suspicion.  So Gracie is mortified when, after her Dad moves out to live with “Fat Frannie”, her Mum takes up with the cult and gets friendly with Saint Bede, making Gracie a pariah at her school – despite her, her Dad and her Grandma Bett being outspoken in their opposition to The Believers, and Saint Bede in particular.

Gracie negotiates her way through ostracism at school, losing her best friend, losing her brother (when he is sent away to the safety of Queensland), the separation of her parents (“I wouldn’t have minded listening to Mum yelling and breaking things if only I could’ve heard the sound of Dad’s boots too”), and of course the horror of the children disappearing and then their funerals: “Grandma Bett said that no one’d felt like organising another funeral so they just followed the same programme [as for the last child]”.

The structure of the novel is great, with many plots woven seamlessly together, and Lane uses the device of seeding the bad things that are to come, with Gracie telling us the story retrospectively: “I feel terrible about that now, especially after what happened later.”  Gracie is pitch perfect in her concerns and priorities: “I didn’t really want another thing to worry about, what with Nigel being murdered, Dad living with Fat Frannie, Mum liking St Bede, and the angry red spots on my chin”.  And the other characters ring true too, especially Grandma Bett with her practical Catholicism: “Then we knelt and clasped our hands together like Grandma Bett did when praying for the children or Ethiopia or for the washing to dry.”

Gracie takes her Grandma’s and her Mum’s religion as it comes, being made to sing carols for Grandma Bett “It was bad enough being the girl who wore a second-hand school uniform without also being the girl who sang Christmas carols on the side of the road.” And going to The Believer services with her Mum: “Walking up the aisle was like walking into something out of a movie, but I couldn’t think what movie. Star Wars, maybe”.

Gracie’s Mum and Dad are dirt poor and distracted, but very human.  As too are the various idiosyncratic folk around the town – many of them falling under suspicion of being the serial killer.  The reader realises before Gracie and the others do who the actual murderer is, and all is resolved and explained – even that crazy River Picnic.  The narrative is funny and scary, and towards the end is very sad: “Laughing seemed a thing of the past.”

As Gracie looks back she isn’t without self-recrimination: “really, when I thought about it, I was pretty gutless”.  But of course, she wasn’t, she was an achingly self-conscious 11-year-old girl with fierce loyalties, a tissue thin outer shell, a crush on the boy next door and the feeling that the world rested on her shoulders.  Gracie’s characterisation is a wonderful achievement and the novel has a perfect ending!

All our secrets is a stand-out debut and has been shortlisted for Best First Novel in this year’s Ngaios. Highly recommended!

Ngaio Marsh Awards 2018 finalists


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Overkill by Vanda Symon – 2018 (originally published 2007)

OverkillI had read a few of Vanda Symon’s Sam Shephard novels, but not the first.  So, when Overkill was re-published this year for the European market I read it – and I am so glad I did – it is so very good!!

To start, Overkill has the most terrifying Prologue!  You are still reeling from that when you meet Sam Shephard.  Sam is the local police constable in the “small town in the back of beyond” that is Mataura, 15 minutes from Gore – but Gore is “a different world”.  Sam likes her job, and her flat-mate Maggie, she is sort of over the fact that her ex-boyfriend, Lockie, has got married and started a family (apart from the occasional lapse and a brick through their window), but she does sometimes wish her life was bit more exciting.

What she wasn’t meaning by excitement was Lockie’s wife Gaby going missing, or her gut feeling that Gaby was dead being right, or that due to her instincts and proactive investigation she would eventually fall under suspicion as being the murderer.  Sam uncovers various suspects, and her methods are inventive, they must be, as Sam is a petite woman in a world where the official command centre smells “heavily of male, even with the windows thrown open’.  Wait till you read how she gets a private interview with a nurse who works for a person of interest!

Sam is smart, inventive and impossible to manage.  She continues to work on the case, even when instructed to keep away, and she is a wonderful mix of female energy and clear-headedness – although she does still get a bit befuddled around Lockie, and wonders about how difficult the carpet will be to clean as she watches her own blood spill on to it.  The scene where she tries to change a tyre on a remote stretch of road with no cell-phone coverage and only cows for an audience, is hilarious.

Overkill is full of the smell of cow-shit and beer, and good old Zild : “I almost came a greaser”, “I could almost have paraded across in the nuddy”, “… you’re a dag girl” etc.  And captures the feel of small town New Zealand delightfully. But, there is a serious side to Overkill and Symon balances this nicely with the humour and scattier side of Sam.

Overkill is a murder mystery where a woman has died, and Gaby’s death is treated with respect, from the trauma of the young man who found her body, to the documenting of the prioritising of male voices that led to some of the grief Gaby was experiencing while she was alive.  And in Sam’s development through the novel as she comes to appreciate Gaby’s worth as “a wife, mother and human being”.

So, a highly recommended New Zealand murder mystery, with a complex New Zealand plot, great Kiwi characters, a solution that shakes the very foundations of New Zealand rural identity and a firebrand of a series character in Sam Shephard, read it!

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Caroline’s Bikini by Kirsty Gunn – 2018

EmilyCaroline's bikini by Kirsty Gunn Stuart is a writer patching her various writing jobs together to make a living in London.  Evan Gordonston is her childhood friend whose family ended up living in the States. When Evan moves back to London, a friend of Emily’s suggests lodging for Evan, he meets his new landlady. And – BANG!

Evan ask Emily to help him document his life-changing meeting with Caroline Beresford.  Emily undertakes the task of documenting his unstated and unrequited love, but his is not the only case of ‘courtly love’.  We recognise in Emily’s writing of Evan’s enrapture, his deteriorating physical state, his screwing up at work and his diet of increasingly sophisticated G&Ts, the same progression in Emily herself.

Caroline’s Bikini is a piece of metafiction, with Emily describing to us the processes and frustrations of writing the novel we are reading.  Emily/Gunn provides us with plenty of footnotes pointing us to the copious end notes – or not, as we please.  The flow of the writing is engrossing, very sad and very funny, and the footnotes deteriorate along with Emily’s judgement as the seasons pass, as the pubs get swankier, as the gin gets more expensive and more chichi, as the pair get more bogged down in describing something about which Emily is in complete denial.

And not only are the reader’s concerns with Emily and Evan – there’s Caroline, the ‘ideal’ woman: good fun, beautiful, hosting successful parties, whisking up meals for her three sons – but also depressed, medicating and not often seen without a glass of wine in her hand.  And David Beresford – having walked away from his job to follow his passion of the classics he is leaving his family adrift in the process. And there are Emily’s friends and colleagues, distantly trying to re-engage with her.

Caroline’s Bikini builds a fair amount of tension, given that not much happens apart from a lot of gin being drunk.  As we slowly move towards the resolution, prefigured in the beginning and achingly drawn out at the end, the reader has no idea whether they are reading a tragedy or a comedy. Whatever the outcome (read Caroline’s Bikini to find out which it is), the novel is an excellent depiction of when personal concerns take over your life and stop you seeing, or taking part in, the world around you.  Wonderful!


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This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman – 2018

This mortal boyAlbert Black has been accused of murder, and the death penalty stands, “Will goodness and mercy prevail?” – alas no, not in 1950s New Zealand, not with the shadow of the Second World War affecting how politicians make decisions, and not with the prejudicial Mazengarb Report being delivered to every household in the country, spreading moral panic.

Albert Black is a young Ulsterman who is sent off to New Zealand in 1953, when he is 18: “It was meant to be a big adventure.”  A handsome and friendly young man.  He makes a friend on board the ship, a 23-year-old Liverpudlian called Peter.  On the same voyage are several child migrants, those sent alone to New Zealand to get them out of the way, many of them ending up living hard childhoods as farm labourers.

Albert isn’t a child migrant, but he has been sent out of the way – his father thinking he is too loved by his Mum, and that a chance to start a new life is just what he needs.  Albert and Peter find work together for a while, eventually moving in with a solo Mum and her children in the Hutt Valley.

Albert becomes known as Paddy, and he is very homesick, just wanting to get home to Belfast.  There is a bit of excitement around the Hutt – in fact it has been reports of promiscuous behaviour in Lower Hutt that has been one of the reasons given for the inquiry into juvenile delinquency that has resulted in the Mazengarb Report.  But Wellington doesn’t hold much promise for raising enough money to buy passage back to Ireland, so Paddy leaves for Auckland.

Paddy washes up as a sole occupant in lodgings in Wellesley St, gets various short-term jobs, and hangs out with the bodgies and widgies at the Ye Olde Barn café.  He might not be able to afford the clothes, but he is part of a generation wanting to look different, dance different and be different from the dull era they have been born into.  Paddy makes friends, has girlfriends, falls in love, keeps in touch with Peter and the woman who took him in in the Hutt, and of course with his Mum back ‘home’.

Then Paddy meets another young man living under a different name from that he was given.  Johnny McBride “… arrived in New Zealand as a child migrant, something he didn’t choose”, he is an insecure young man who comes across as a bully.  He and Paddy are at logger heads from the start, and one clash in the Ye Olde Barn café results in the death of Johnny McBride.

This Mortal Boy reads like a Greek Tragedy, we know what is going to happen:  Alfred Black was the second to last person put to death at the hands of the State in New Zealand.  We read about him, his circle, his parents and younger brother in Ireland, with the knowledge of poor Alfred’s fate.  And this is what makes it such a beautiful and poignant read.

Kidman’s depiction of the time is lush; the vomit of the six o’clock swill, the Edwardian swish of the bodgies’ outfits, the early dreams of later strip club mogul Rainton Hastie, the pulse of Auckland – except on a Sunday when “Queen Street [was] so quiet you could shoot a gun straight down the middle and nobody would come running.”  She exquisitely draws Paddy making bad choices and saying crazy things and knowing it but being too young to listen to his own voice of reason.

We follow Paddy into Mt Eden Prison, listen in on the guilt wracked Superintendent Horace Haywood, who disagrees with the death penalty, and his off-sider Des Ball, himself guilty of appalling spousal abuse, of which his neighbours know but don’t report.  This latter is one of the many contradictions and injustices Kidman highlights: outrage at teenage abusive behaviour – silence over abuse inside marriage; a post-war society where “Young men are expected to be warriors, to be pioneers and soldiers, so brave of heart” – those not privileged condemned for behaving like warriors; a young man condemned to death for an accident – another left to carry on in the community for a much worse crime, etc., etc.

The saddest contradiction is the sending of young children to a distant country for a fresh start – then ostracising them for being ‘different’.  The scenes in which the jury discuss Paddy’s case highlight all the prejudices of the time, the jury itself (all men) split neatly along class lines. In the end the verdict is brought in after only an hour and forty minutes deliberations, most of which was on other factors than the evidence against Paddy, after all: “He speaks like a bog-trotter.”

There is an obvious miscarriage of justice, including an appalling leak of information to the jurors via the press before a verdict has been reached, advising what the judge has already decided about Paddy’s fate.  And Kidman describes the earnest work of Ralph Hanan to get the verdict overturned at the highest levels.  And the barrister Oliver Buchanan trying to do the same at the Court level, realising too late that crucial evidence has not been presented.

Back in Belfast, Kathleen, Paddy’s Mum, is doing all she can do via her appeals to local politicians, New Zealand politicians, and even the Queen.  But all the pleading and appeals are in vain, because the decision to take Paddy’s life has nothing to do with him or his actions, it is all to do with power and warped principles – sharply delineated in the scene with Paddy being interviewed by a psychiatrist to see if he is “a suitable candidate for the hangman’s noose.”

“In the meantime, there is the small matter of a man’s life to be decided” – The story of This mortal boy unfolds in non-chronological pieces – in prison, in court, various episodes in Paddy’s life, in Belfast with his family.  But it is seamlessly stitched together, heartbreakingly sad at the end and just a wonderful piece of New Zealand historical fiction.



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The Second Grave by Ian Austin – 2018

The second graveDan Calder is settled in New Zealand after his hectic time in The agency, the first in the Dan Calder trilogy.  He has settled down with Tara Danes (from The agency) and they have adopted a dog, Jet.  Dan is doing contract work for the Police and all is calm, until he gets a call from his old mate Nick Hetherington.  Then Dan flies back to the UK to help Nick, whose daughter, Amber, has been arrested and accused of unlawful killing, possibly murder.

The second grave is a hard read; it is set in a milieu where sex workers are called, toms. prossies and whores.  It is a world where blokes pack off their women folk to keep them out of harm’s way and are always surprised when a woman appears to have a brain – although in one case that’s probably because “you live with a detective for long enough and something has to rub off”.  Women are criticised: “Mother’s God-awful dinners”, sexually abused, infantilised: “We need to be able to do what we have to do without me worrying about you and the girls”, and we are informed by doozies such as: “The majority of men sleep on the side of the bed closest to the bedroom door, a trait dating back to prehistoric ancestors guarding the cave entrance”.

So that is the context for the story – Dan leaves Tara and heads to England and to the aid of his old partner and friend Nick.  The title of the book comes from the Confucius quote “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  And Tara realises that Dan’s eagerness is as much about seeking revenge on his bête noire Detective Chief Superintendent Jim Allen, who is in charge of the case, as it is about helping his friend Nick – but when she says she will go with him, Dan says no – who wants the voice of reason with you when you’re on a mission?

Nick’s daughter has been framed for the murder of a sex worker, Anna Rofe.  Anna is a “typical tom” who won’t be missed, even one of the ‘good guys’ thinks it’s not too much of a problem mishandling her murder investigation – and one of the ‘bad guys’ complains that the killing of “worthless slags” shouldn’t be counted as murder at all.

Dan is calm on the surface, and spookily talented in his trade (he occasionally goes into meditative trances when mentally sifting through information).  He and Nick methodically go about their work of finding out what really happened to Anna and why Amber is in the frame, in order to exonerate Amber.  But Dan is also a wreck with demons, as we found out in The agency, and when we find out more about his background in this novel, we realise he really has got serious demons lurking in his past.  And his black and white view of the world may be as much about self-preservation as prejudice and testosterone.

There are no surprises in this novel, the reader knows who did what to whom, and why.  We understand where the corruption is and how some of the players got sucked in.  We also realise quite early on that Dan’s take on others is not as dead accurate as he thinks.  The tension in the novel comes from seeing how Dan and Nick can work it out in time, and how much additional damage will be done before the culprits are caught.  The writing is tight, and the suspense builds nicely, a deadline being given by the date of Amber’s next required appearance at the Police Station. The pacing and dialogue flow, although Austin uses the device of having Dan and Nick explain their techniques to Amber as a way of letting the reader understand ‘the craft’, and this occasionally intrudes into the narrative.  As with The agency, there are some very moving scenes.

There is an effective confusion in The second grave between the good guys and the bad guys.  The methodical actions of Dan and Nick are echoed by those of one of the gangs carrying out a liquor heist.  There are very bad cops (one, Binder, almost Shakespearean in his willingness to do anything to advance his career), and there are bad cops that turn out to be good cops, and good ex-cops who turn out to have done bad things, and there is a disregard for women (except as ‘Madonnas or whores’) on both sides of the divide.

Dan’s two satori moments come when Amber starts blaming herself for one of the appalling events in the novel, and then again when he realises he may have misjudged someone.  Both moments lead us to believe that there might be a genuinely brighter future for Dan, a more open and nuanced view of the world, maybe we will see that when we catch up with Dan and Tara in part three of the trilogy, Frozen summer, due out later this year.  The second grave could be read as a stand-alone, but I think would be better read after reading the The agency.


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Sleeps Standing Moetū by Witi Ihimaera and Hēmi Kelly – 2017

Sleeps standing“You didn’t know about the women and children at Rewi’s last stand?”  Sadly, no – the bravery and technical brilliance yes, but not the stories of sacrifice by all the defenders, regardless of age or gender.

Sleeps standing Moetū is a small but complex volume; a history of the Battle of Ōrākau (one of the most significant battles in the New Zealand Wars in the Waikato), a summary of depictions of the battle in history books and other cultural media, some eye witness accounts, a set of photographs (including some stunning portraits, one lovely one of a young Witi Ihimaera), and at its heart a novella in parallel text, the te reo version by Hēmi Kelly.  The novella is a beautiful piece of historical fiction.

Sleeps standing Moetū is a story within a story, a young man returns to New Zealand from Australia, with his Waanji bride.  They are expecting their first child and wish to call him Moetū.  After asking permission to do so, Simon is given the story of the ancestral Moetū.

Moetū’s story is told mainly from inside the Ōrākau pā.  Rewi Manga Maniapoto had stood up to the British troops many times before the Battle of Ōrākau and “Ngāti Maniapoto have the primary right to tell the story of Ōrākau”.  So Moetū is a 16 year old boy from the Rongowhakaata people of Tūranga, Gisborne. Their chief at the time was Raharui Rukupō, an ancestor of Ihimaera.

Moetū insists on joining others from his tribe when Rewi calls upon his allies to take a stand with Ngāti Maniapoto.  Those that responded are from Waikato, Raukawa, Tūhoe, Taranaki, Rongowhakaata, Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou.

Moetū is tactical and brave, he quickly comes to the attention of Te Haa, the leader of the Rongowhakaata warriors, Rewi and Ahumai Te Paerata, the woman who is leading the women in battle.  Moetū is given responsibility in the fight, and eventually the task of keeping the children safe throughout the battle and after.

The question of why did they go to the pā and why did they stay and make a stand is addressed: there was no safety anywhere at the time. British troops had attacked villages, so why not at least be somewhere fortified?  And when the British offered safe passage for the women and children: “If our husbands and brothers are to die, of what profit is it to us that we the women and children should live?”

The story of the women and children of the Battle of Ōrākau is extraordinary, the children fought and died alongside the adults, and the women alongside the men.  Even when fleeing, the children threw peach stones to spook the Forest Rangers’ horses.

And the women are wonderfully described:

Kararaina: “She was short and slim but with broad shoulders like a man’s.  Her eyes were black and her hair was glossy and wavy and long, down to her knees; she gathered it up and tied it with a red ribbon – her one vanity.  Some called her pretty, but she was not one who thought much about her looks.”

And her sister, Whetū: “The voice belonged to a striking young woman standing on the main parapet of the pā, holding a musket. Wearing a plaid skirt and dogskin cape, and a hat to keep the sun out of her eyes, she fired off a warning shot.”

As the battle progresses the plight of the combatants becomes dire, hardly any food, no access to water, diminishing artillery and suffering great losses of people.  There are more reinforcements willing to fight alongside Rewi and Ahumai Te Paerata, but the soldiers will not let them through and they are reduced to yelling encouragement over the enemy lines.

Little do the British know how under-resourced are those in the Pā – at one point the women respectfully take on the clothes of their dead men and walk around to make the defenders look plentiful.  They are all committed: “Let us abide by the fortunes of war. If we are to die, let us die in battle. If we are to live, let us live defending the pā.”

The framing story works well, it is told from the point of view of Rua, descendant of Patu, a very young child who is orphaned during the Battle of Ōrākau, and who fights alongside Moetū, and who is later adopted by him and Kararaina.  Simon, the Australian, is from Rua’s uncle’s side of the family, an uncle who was stationed with the Army in Malaya and who stopped and stayed in Australia on the way home.  Rua’s sister Hūhana also contributes to the story-telling.

Rua looks out cartoons and articles about the battle to show Simon, filling us in on some of the details of the battle without the research seeming dry or over-detailed.  The women of the present are strong too – insisting on healthy food at Simon’s farewell, putting up with jibes about their weight etc, but all dressed up for line-dancing at the farewell – still doing things their way.  Hūhana assuring Simon that he can learn the end of Moetū’s story: “the plane won’t leave until I tell the pilot he can go”.

But the beauty of the story is in the battle: in the echoing of the story in the clouds above the pā, in the moments of sacrifice and bravery, in the characters’ love for each other, for those who have chosen to make a stand and fight, in the purity of the dedication: “Don’t ask me to look into the future, Moetū, The past is still with me, and there’s the present to take care of.”

And the aftermath when “Neutrality was over everywhere.”  A great reminder of some of the powerful and appalling and history of New Zealand.



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