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I read ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’ every Christmas Eve, and in that way it has become less a story to me and more a collection of familiar jokes, quirks and reminders. The cubic capacity of Henry Baker’s skull, the ill-tempered smugness of a Covent Garden fowl merchant, the Christmas dinner in which a bird will feature heavily: all of them are present and correct, in the best ways of tradition, when called upon.

But what actually happens in this story? What does it look like? In some ways, it is rather ugly: its very first sentence includes that higgledy-piggledy word ‘upon’ twice within the space of six words. Like Holmes and Watson’s wander through the frosty streets of the capital in search of the breeder of Baker’s gem-laden goose, the story dots and weaves rather abruptly through a number of brief episodes, to the extent that the detective’s insistence to the piece’s villain, James Ryder, that he has “all the proofs which I could possibly need” seems even bolder an assertion than usual. It has a wonderful atmosphere, but an ungainly shape.

On the other hand, it’s an excellent example of what Michael Chabon has called the Holmesian canon’s tendency to produce ‘story engines’, little perfectly-tuned motors of narrative which contain a cascade of plot and incident that helps propel the apparently meagre foregrounded story with considerably more impetus than it might otherwise have. ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’, slight and swift as it seems, in fact contains a whole series of other tales, a sense of happening which fits a story that rests on the conceit that it is “one of those whimsical little incidents which will happen when you have four million human beings all jostling each other within the space of a few square miles”.

Even as Watson arrives at Holmes’s rooms – usually the start of a Sherlockian escapade – events are in motion. The good doctor finds his friend deep in contemplation – Peterson, the commissionaire, has already brought a beaten old hat and a goose to Holmes for inspection, and along with them a vignette of a boozy Yuletide evening in which high spirits became a violent altercation from which a man fled without his Christmas goose. That man, we discover, is Mr Henry Baker – whose story Holmes draws from the details of his cracked felt hat (“his wife has ceased to love him”). When Baker answers Holmes’s message – printed in those repositories of narrative, the newspapers – we discover yet more about him, including that he is party to a two dozen-strong goose club. (This latter fact gives us twenty-three other Victorian Christmases to ponder.)

We know by now, of course, that Baker’s goose contained the famed blue carbuncle, a priceless gem belonging to the Countess of Morcar which, Holmes tells Watson, “is a nucleus and focus of crime” – in short, a body around which countless stories orbit. We might wonder, too, how the Countess came upon this storied artifact, about the relationship between Lady Morcar and her lady-in-waiting, whose tip-off to the upper-attendant of the hotel in which her mistress was resident gave rise to this latest theft; we read of a previous conviction for robbery of John Horner, the man framed by Ryder for the carbuncle’s disappearance, and reassess Holmes’s later insistence upon the plumber’s total innocence; and, of course, we wonder what poor old Inspector Bradstreet, quoted in the press as to his certitude of Horner’s guilt, makes of Holmes’s involvement.

These are a lot of jumping-off points for a story so short, and help explain why there is so much space to explore within its apparently slight constraints. Holmes’s final act of festive forgiveness, allowing Ryder to flee, leaves open yet more possibilities: “there is the making of a very pretty villain in you,” the detective tells the villain, and his escape at the story’s close leaves his future career a matter for speculation.

But that, perhaps, is a story for the New Year. In the meantime, readers: merry Christmas to you, whatever your story.

Again, a hearty hmm.

The adventures of Sherlock Holmes may not be the best place in all of literature to search for vital, powerful female characters. Mrs Hudson is a classic nurturer, Mary Morstan shows not a care in the world that her husband is constantly on lad’s breaks with his dangerous old smoking buddy, and if Irene Adler is a curious and confused splicing of the Madonna and the Whore, she is also a woman led entirely by her age’s expectations of marriage. I’ve always been fond of Violet Smith from ‘The Solitary Cyclist‘, and Miss Hunter of ‘The Copper Beeches‘ seems similarly capable; but more typical are the women of ‘Thor Bridge‘ and ‘The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax‘.

All of which means that perhaps it is no surprise when, as I noted in my last post, a modern retelling of Sherlock Holmes attracts criticism for its depiction of gender. It’s not even as if this problem is new to Sherlock: I noted in my review of the last episode of its first series that all its women can be categorised either as “bitter, soppy or useless”. Nevertheless, in its depiction of Irene Adler, it seems to me, the show was attempting something rather more complex than it was given credit for; it may have failed in achieving its goal, but that’s not the same as failing to set out to try at all. The writers of Sherlock are working from a source text in which almost every character of any agency at all is male. Gary Reed and Guy Davis did a rather brilliant thing in the 1980s with the comic book series Baker Street, but Sherlock it was not.

The difficulty with this reasoning, however, is that Sherlock is not a faithful adaptation. After reading Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, I noted why Sherlock Holmes could never become so compromised as that novel’s principle investigator, Escherich:

Holmes, for all his at times cavalier approach to human feelings (harsh words to Watson, sham romances with servant girls), never loses sight of the importance of a shared humanity: approaching Christmas, we might remember his act of charity in ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. This is a generosity and selflessness lost to Escherich, who questions the validity of the law only in his final moments. Holmes, on the other hand, is always aware that natural justice is higher than any human legal system.

Sherlock, on the other hand, is far from “separate but connected”. Abigail Nussbaum, in her post about Sherlock, has some intelligent things to say about the ways in which the show has recast, at times accidentally, its hero as a sociopath: its “emphasis on Sherlock’s need to be the smartest guy in the room–in the pursuit of which, not justice or the greater good, he humiliates Irene and leaves her to a gruesome fate–makes him seem a great deal crueler and less heroic” than even Steven Moffat might have intended, much less Arthur Conan Doyle himself. I write as someone who rather enjoys Robert Downey Jr’s turn as the great detective, and therefore not one who necessarily believes in the purity of adaptation – Sherlock Holmes can and should be refigured. The question must be, however, with what depth and consistency that is done.

In the very first episode of Sherlock, Rupert Graves’s likeable Inspector Lestrade intones that Benedict Cumberbatch’s detective is a great man, but not yet a good one. Vinette Robinson’s Detective Sergeant Sally Robinson (one of the show’s ‘bitter’ women) goes further, telling John that it will only take so long for Sherlock to start committing crimes of his own; in the final episode of the most recent run, she becomes convinced that he has begun to do so. This Sherlock is not our original Holmes, but nor is his sociopathy – or autism, as it is occassionally and rather randomly implied to be – particularly consistent. Much has been made of the toe-curling humiliation meted out to Molly (one of the show’s ‘soppy’ women) in ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’, and Sherlock’s subsequent climb-down, ending with his asking for her help in ‘The Reichenbach Fall'; but between these two presumed ‘arc’ points, Sherlock’s interactions with her resemble those from the first season. Likewise, John’s subtle little “ready?” as the two prepare to brave the photographers waiting outside 221B in that final episode also suggests something averse to strangers and crowds in his friend – the most we ever get from him, however, is an uncomfortable smile and a silly hat.

Admittedly, the deerstalker riffs are lovely – it was, of course, not Holmes’s hat, either, but likewise an imposition by an over-eager illustrator. But this sort of clever-clever reference comes to dominate Sherlock‘s style in the second season, with fear gases being transposed from one story to another, coming to stand for the inherited and inchoate fear of the Baskervilles from the original Hound, and curling back towards Sherlock’s own knowingness when he dangles the possibility of – gasp! – sending John to Dartmoor alone. There is something about the intensity of this reference – all the Rathbone stuff in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’, for instance – which is a little over-arch, a little (dare I say it – for Maureen Kincaid Speller certainly has) boyish.

Of course, it is also and primarily self-aware – that is, deliberately altering the source material when convenient for the writers. There, indeed, is the rub: after forty-five minutes of boldly updating ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, and doing so with flair and not a little exciting aplomb, Moffat and company tack on a further forty-five minutes of structurally weaker material which serves to deconstruct, or from one perspective undermine, what has gone before: Lara Pulver’s Adler veers from victorious dominatrix to grateful damsel, undone by the first of the series’ two over-simplistic passwords (which may or may not provide, in their absurd unsoundness, an excuse for Sherlock’s IT illiteracy in the face of Moriarty’s ‘key code’). This is new material quite beyond anything in the source texts – it is a choice on the part of the writers, and they have shown elsewhere how consciously they write. I remain in large part in agreement with Jon Blum that Moffat’s Adler does not represent the deconstruction of female power her critics argue her to be; rather, she is part of a deconstruction of how Sherlock imagines relationships. That she is put to the service of Sherlock’s story has nothing to do with gender – so even is the show’s greatest asset, Freeman’s John. But the fact remains that the choice the writers made was insufficiently developed, or inexpertly executed. Moffat shouldn’t need to explain his writing.

Abigail discusses Sherlock‘s crush on Sherlock, and it is this which is at the root of the show’s problems: the show’s addiction to aggrandising reference, and its incomplete treatment both of other characters and Sherlock’s less formidable sides, lead to weaker characterisation, and weaker thematic treatments, than might be achieved with a clearer-eyed view of the hero. Sherlock’s journey from sociopath to ‘good man’, it seems to me, will be even bumpier than Adler’s from dominatrix to hostage. This leaves us, at the end of the show’s sixth episode, where we were at the close of its third: “As good as it has been, it needs to be more careful about its choices in the future.”

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are on the run. Hiding in a damp alleyway somewhere in the back-end of Marylebone, they catch a breath, handcuffed together, and regroup. James Moriarty, Sherlock’s greatest enemy, has framed the world’s only consulting detective for a string of crimes, all of which he purported to solve; even his closest allies within the police force are now doubting that their erstwhile collaborator was ever anything more than an elaborate, sociopathic conman. “Everybody wants to believe it, that’s what makes it so clever,” Sherlock reflects. “A lie that’s preferable to the truth: my deductions were a sham. No-one feels inadequate, Sherlock’s an ordinary man.” Sherlock Holmes knows that we want him to be humbled.

Efforts to topple the great detective from his self-selected lofty heights have a long vintage. They began with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, who famously attempted to rid his career of the success that had so blighted it by sending Holmes careering off the edge of a cliff; it is a need which has continued to be fulfilled right to the present day, in manners as disparate as Michael Chabon’s in The Final Solution or Mitch Cullin’s in A Slight Trick of the Mind, both of which imagine Holmes in his creaking senescence, and Matt Frewer’s in four TV movies for the Hallmark Channel, in which Holmes is a joke of a character, zany and cartoonish in a fashion that renders him a laughable caricature. Attempts to humanise Holmes – Rupert Everett’s turn in The Case of the Silk Stocking – or to uncover his psychology – Nicholas Meyer‘s The Seven Per Cent Solution –  have the same ultimate end: to find a chink in Holmes’s armour, and to prise him open.

It is to the credit of the latest series of Sherlock, Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis’s reimaginng of Conan Doyle, that it takes this trope and uses it for another purpose: to, on the contrary, re-affirm Holmes’s other-worldliness. To one extent or another, the gambit may be slightly weakened by its similarity to the plot of Moffat’s most recent season of Doctor Who, in which a disassociated super-being with few meaningful relationships has only one option if he is to avoid the power of his own myth: fake his own death (and here Benedict Cumberbatch’s pitch-perfect Sherlock is given in ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ the motivation of Holmes’s creator), and recede from the immortal limelight. On the other hand, and with a hat tip to the reputedly “preternaturally urbane” Graham Sleight, I’ve been mulling over Jon Blum’s post about ‘A Scandal In Belgravia’, the first of the latest Sherlock trilogy, and along with much of the rest of his analysis tend to agree that beneath the surface resemblance between the Doctor and Sherlock beat three quite different hearts.

In fact, let’s begin with the Belgravian imbroglio. As Blum points out, the episode caused some consternation, since many viewers felt its depiction of Irene Adler – a character who appeared in the first of Conan Doyle’s short stories, got married, and left again – fell short in its gender politics of a literally Victorian forebear. Moffat’s Adler is a professional dominatrix with a string of high-profile clients (an earlier age may euphemistically have called her an ‘adventuress’) who seeks security not from a twist of gold around her finger but by blackmailing the British state. When Holmes arrives at her home, dressed as in the original story as a doddery clergyman, this Adler sees through him; when Holmes tricks her into revealing the location of her hidden valuables, this Adler has booby-trapped the safe; and, when orchestrating her escape, this Adler has no need to dress as a man and do a moonlight flit – she incapacitates Holmes, using his body against him.

That Adler is ultimately and rather triumphantly defanged is also true; but, it seems to me, her role is not to defeat the series’ hero (since nor does she achieve this in the source text): it is, in a manner far more potent than a few Watsonian lines at the end of a story, to test and undermine his commitment to reason and rationality (a characteristic so fundamental to the Holmes character that even Guy Ritchie’s foppish iteration shares it). Holmes’s feelings for Adler – again, so much more far-reaching and plainly stated than in the source text – lead even he to question the central, Spockish tenets of his existence. All limbs and rolling eyes, crashing to the floor, Holmes is out of control not because he cannot solve a puzzle, which of course he may always do at the very last minute, but because he has been incapacitated, literally brought low.

Likewise, in ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’ (the first of two titles this season which play with plurals), Holmes is confounded by the barrier which exists between the world and his mind. In this case, his senses are assaulted by a non-corporeal influence, glimpsing a gigantic hound on the moors – even though, as he insists, ‘hound’ is an archaic term wildly out of place in a world of SMS and first-name-terms, and despite the fact that, to paraphrase Jeremy Brett’s dyspeptic Holmes of ‘The Last Vampyre’, “werewolves don’t exist!” How to respond, then, to a problem which does not yield to the rationalistic observation method Sherlock brings to bear upon every problem? He is for a while at a loss, and confesses an extended moment of real doubt to John (a masterful Martin Freeman, who will not receive the attention of Cumberbatch but deserves all the plaudits). Holmes – naturally – ultimately solves the mystery. But he does so by passing through a Gethsemane, and the audience enjoys it. We – and here we should sigh a sad, patronised, joyless sigh – ‘identify’.

All of this leads to a new kind of precipice, both figurative and literal: Sherlock, defeated and check-mated, is goaded to self-annihilation by Moriarty, atop the roof of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital. At the end of an episode which gleefully retells The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the first of Basil Rathbone’s appearances as the detective and the source both of the courtroom drama and the Tower of London heist, the site of Sherlock’s first contact with John is refigured as an alternate location for what Conan Doyle long ago wished would be his last. The Reichenbach fall of the title, however, is not a torrent of water but a movement from unconquerable rescuer of a stolen Turner to potential suicide standing at the edge of a tall building as his greatest enemy brands him a less than worthy adversary. “I’m disappointed in you, ordinary Sherlock,” groans Moriarty, chagrined that even his finest adversary is, in the final analysis, no match for his genius – just normal, just human. Just a sham.

Of course, all that follows  – with different moves, but the same shape as Conan Doyle’s original Swiss tango – exists, as it exists in the real world which so confounded Conan Doyle’s assumption that Sherlock Holmes was mortal, to disprove Moriarty’s thesis. Sherlock, like Holmes, is extra-ordinary, capable of evading certain death, of solving every puzzle, of championing the power of human faculty. This is how we should understand and embrace him – not as an impossible ideal, a tabloid celebrity whom we, like Katherine Parkinson’s Kitty Reilly, are desperate to tear back down (see that issue with Moffat and women? It’s there, but let’s leave it for another day). Sherlock Holmes offers us necessary hope: we leave Freeman’s John walking into a bleak landscape of duller colours, having begged a tombstone to perform one last restorative miracle.

Across the churchyard, hidden and unseen – but prepared, like another figure of British legend, to return when we are most in need him – Sherlock Holmes, unhumbled, abides.

The usual tradition: this year, the festive joy starts a minute in. Merry Christmas, gentle reader.

(Of course, and not for the first time, Holmes’s initial, and here gloriously playful, instincts are shown to be erroneous – there is indeed a dark story attached to Henry Baker’s hat. The season’s gift to him, then, is a crime – and he is, indeed, like a child at Christmas.)

“It’s surprising how few of the stories in the first collection, ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ contain murders,” wrote Anthony Horowitz of the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle recently. Indeed, for a modern crime writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories must seem missives from a gentler time: few detective stories are now complete without a grisly corpse or two, and Horowitz’s own new Holmes novel, The House of Silk, is no exception. By its final page, Holmes and Watson have stood sadly over several dead bodies, one of them particularly gruesome, and solved a mystery involving many more. What is impressive about this and every other aspect of Horowitz’s Conan Doyle estate-endorsed volume, however, is that such a deviation from the usual Holmes template doesn’t feel gratuitious or even out of kilter with the canon.

To be sure, the pre-release hype that Horowitz had written The House of Silk in Conan Doyle’s style was misleading: the Watson of this novel, writing from a retirement home after the death of his oldest and dearest friend, is too reflective, and the narrative too economical, to remind one of the four canonical novels, or even any of the short stories. Horowitz is a little above Conan Doyle’s old trick of withholding information from the reader, too, and this makes his mystery a little easier to solve than many of Holmes’s cases. Crucially, however, Horowitz writes in the way that you might fondly remember Watson sounding: erudite but at times dogmatic, with an eye for the ladies but morally resolute, focused on action far more than context. Writing in 2011, on the other hand, Horowitz can’t let Watson get away with his flaws as a narrator, and has the good doctor criticise his own stories for ignoring the poor or the young, for skipping over the mise en scene in favour of the hackney chase. The gambit undoubtedly pays off: this is a nonagenarian Watson looking back on his life, writing the last of his reminscences of Sherlock Holmes, and allowing a suppler, more intimate, style to emerge.

All the details are here: the Persian slipper, the game proving to be afoot, Lestrade’s mixture of defiance and respect. Horowitz admitted in that Telegraph piece that he took Conan Doyle’s lead in paying little heed to chronology, and Baring Gould would indeed find it impossible to place The House of Silk in a chronology: the novel is set in 1890, and the ‘Adventure of the Red-Headed League’, we are told, happened just seven weeks ago; by the same token, one character tells Watson he recently read and enjoyed the ‘Copper Beeches’ which, though set in 1890 (according to Brad Keefauver, though Baring Gould puts it in 1889), wasn’t published until 1892. Indeed, many characters refer to their knowledge of Watson’s stories, and of course this plays total havoc with any journeyman attempt to play the Great Game; at the same time, however, the novel plays that game with abandon, making Watson’s publication history explicit in a way Conan Doyle never did – Waston and Holmes both have fans, and past adventures frequently receive a reference.

So, too, do past characters: from minor ones, such as Dr Trevelyan from the ‘Adventure of the Resident Patient’, to more major and predictable appearances from Mycroft and others. For the most part, bar one rather egregious appearance from the character you might expect, this is done well; other puns, such as an appearance by ‘Ephraim Hardcastle‘ seem a bit gauche. Still, Horowitz is having huge fun, and for by far the most part this transfers to the reader: The House of Silk is a thoroughly good read, and though Horowitz only works out how to make a Holmes story last as long as he needs it to by splicing two mysteries together, the final reveal is terrifically neat – and involves enough of the standard Sherlockian ingredients, from exotic backgrounds to double lives, to ring true.

I imagine, therefore, that the book will be read with pleasure by those who’ve never read a Holmes story in their life. It should also be read happily by Holmes enthusiasts, though no doubt some will find a purist’s reason for a glum face. For instance, at times Holmes seems to one side of this novel – in fact, Watson is probably its main focus. If this is Horowitz’s solution to tackling the most intimidating detective in fiction, one should give him a pass – and hope for another novel with more Holmes for its buck, because when Horowitz does zoom in close, he nails the characters brilliantly: “Show Holmes a drop of water and he would deduce the existence of the Atlantic,” Watson opines at one point. “Show it to me and I would look for a tap.” [pg. 180] This is a novel with precisely enough both of respect and of cheek to do the job. In a few weeks, Robert Downey Jr, one suspects, will give us rather more of the latter. Eat this up while you can.

In a quarter of an hour we were in Bloomsbury at the Alpha Inn, which is a small public-house at the corner of one of the streets which runs down into Holborn. Holmes pushed open the door of the private bar and ordered two glasses of beer from the ruddy-faced, white-aproned landlord.

"As he reached the corner of Goodge Street..."

Few festive tipples can be as Sherlockian as a pint of best ale from the Alpha Inn. It features in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, my regular Christmas Eve read, and is home to the goose club which proves so fateful to all involved. We know well that both Watson and his literary agent, Arthur Conan-Doyle, sought to hide real people and places behind pseudonyms and thin veneers. If we wished to find the Alpha, then, where would we start?

In Finding Sherlock’s London, Thomas Wheeler suggests the most likely candidate is the Museum Tavern, at 49 Great Russell Street. This has the twin benefit of being both of the right period and immediately adjacent to Alpha patron Henry Baker’s place of work, the British Museum.

In the story, however, Baker says the Alpha is “near” the Museum, not directly outside it. And Watson gives us a clear route to the locality of the Alpha from Holmes’s Baker Street rooms: through the doctor’s quarter, down Wimpole and Harley Streets, onto Wigmore Street and from there down Oxford Street. Watson does not mention bearing onto Great Russell Street – we might assume because he and Holmes did not, but rather continued down onto New Oxford Street and turned right towads Holborn.

There’s broad agreement on the year in which The Blue Carbuncle was set, with both Brad Keefauver and Chris Miller agreeing on 1889. In this, these modern Sherlockians differ slightly from past master Baring-Gould, who placed the story in 1887. Key to our investigation, however, is that each of these dates falls after the 1886 completion of Vulliamy and Bazalgette’s Shaftesbury Avenue. Part of the point of this grand project had been to clear some of the St Giles slums, replacing them with a broad Parisian-style boulevard. In this, the architects were ultimately successful, and we are thus left with the suggestion of an eastern limitation for the area in which our down-at-heel public house might be found.

One of the best sources for discovering in this way who lived where in late Victorian London is Charles Booth’s poverty map of the city, completed in 1898-99. Alas, this is ten years following the events surrounding the theft of the blue carbuncle, but we might expect to see some vestigial traces of the income distribution patterns Holmes would have known. We know that, upon leaving the Alpha Inn, he and Watson proceeded across Holborn, onto Endell Street and thus towards the fowl stall at Covent Garden market. We can thus assume that the Alpha is not just west of Shaftesbury Avenue, but south of New Oxford Street and north of Holborn. Peeking at Booth’s map for this area reveals a square, bound on the west by what is now Earnshaw Street, which consists of the pink and purple hues designating the liminal middle classes of which Henry Baker was a part – and which might benefit from a goose club orchestrated by a kindly publican such as the Alpha’s Windigate.

This area of London now includes Bucknall Street and Dyott Street, both of which are unrecognisable from what looks to be their tight-packed Victorian forebears (Booth’s Arthur Street, meanwhile, appears to be no more). This is an area which until the slum clearance programme was home to an infamous rookery. But by the late nineteenth century it had become marginally more genteel, and Baker’s route home from the Alpha to the “the labyrinth of small streets which lie at the back of Tottenham Court Road” is both direct enough from the Museum to suggest a post-work drink requiring only a small diversion well worth the cosiness, and in addition is on Booth’s map lined with the same pink and purple squares denoting families for whom “shillings have not been so plentiful [...] as they once were.” Bloomsbury is a rather grand drinking hole for a man such as Henry Baker; the border streets of St Giles hit the spot much better.

We have, perhaps, found the streets on which the Alpha was truly located. Fortunately for us, the London Post Office Directory of 1899 listed pubs for the benefit of the thirsty, and there is only one quite clearly within the remit we have set ourselves. Raise a glass, then, to Edward Woodley (and is Woodley not rather close to Watson’s Windigate?) and his Two Brewers public house. Gone perhaps – but, I think, not quite forgotten.

Merry Christmas, everyone. Have a very happy one.

I was channel hopping the other day, and – as is often the case – ITV3 were showing old episodes of the Brett Holmes. This one, though, was slightly different: the feature length version of The Sign of Four, which seems to have had a significantly higher budget than the hour-long episodes. I didn’t watch the whole thing – in fact, I tuned in very close to the end – but that was almost exactly the right moment to realise, with its comedy Welshman and hideous Africans, that this piece of television is now more than 23 years old. Criminy.

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