Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews


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THE DEFENCE by Steve Cavanagh


Steve Cavanagh (

Orion Books (


“Do exactly as I tell you or I’ll put a bullet in your spine.”

Pushing the gun hard into my back, he said, “I’ll follow you out of the bathroom. You’ll put on your coat. You’ll pay for breakfast, and we’ll leave together. We’re going to talk. If you do as I tell you, you’ll be fine. If you don’t – you’re dead.”

Eddie Flynn was an ex-con-man-turned lawyer. These days, he’s an ex-lawyer-turned-alcoholic who hasn’t set foot in a courtroom in a year, following the breakdown of a high-profile case. Now, in the bathroom of the diner where he eats breakfast every day, a Russian mobster has put a gun to his back and abducted him. The gangster has a proposal for Eddie, the type of proposal that a person doesn’t turn down: Eddie will defend Olek Volchek, the head of the Russian mafia, in an impossible murder trial with a bomb strapped to his back. For added incentive, Olek is holding Eddie’s daughter hostage, and Eddie has forty-eight hours to defend his client, or work out a way to get his daughter back. Luckily for Eddie, his chequered past has left him with a lot of contacts, and more than a few owed favours.

Belfast native Steve Cavanagh describes his debut novel, The Defence, as a “legal-thriller”. This reader can reveal that the emphasis is most definitely on the thriller, though the plot does allow for a fair amount of courtroom drama. We are introduced to Eddie Flynn, one-time con-man, one-time practicing lawyer, at the moment that the Russian mafia decides that he can help them achieve their nefarious ends in the trial of their leader, Olek Volchek. This tense and riveting opening gives us little time to get to know Eddie before he is thrown into the thick of the plot, so much of what we know about him by the end of the novel we learn in bite-sized chunks between the almost-relentless action.

It quickly becomes clear that Eddie Flynn is more than your average muscle-bound action hero.There is wit and a sly intelligence here, and a pride in his own ability that makes it clear he was once a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom. His dark past, the life of a petty criminal, and his close relationship with the leadership of the city’s Italian mafia, add to the mystery, and provide him with an almost endless source of resources to tap, and contacts on whom he can call in his hour of need. The daughter – held hostage by Volchek’s minions against Eddie’s continued cooperation – adds some further meat to the bones of this already well-fleshed character: Eddie’s life may be falling apart at the seams, but he still loves his daughter, still feels some element of responsibility for who he once was, and what he has done.

The tension increases as the story progresses, and Cavanagh injects a number of perfectly-realised set-pieces (the night-time trip around the upper ledges of New York’s Chambers Street Court building is one that springs immediately to mind) designed to keep the reader perched firmly on the edge of their seat, and completely immersed in Eddie Flynn’s rapidly-disintegrating world. Despite Eddie’s sense of humour, which lifts the tone of many of the novel’s darker scenes, there is something ominous about the events and, while the first-person narrative contains a clue concerning Eddie’s survival beyond the end of The Defence, nothing else comes with a cast-iron guarantee, and the very real threat that hangs over Eddie’s daughter is one that remains with the reader throughout. It’s a masterful play, a clever piece of plotting that overshadows even the bomb strapped to Eddie’s back. That said, Eddie isn’t in for an easy ride, and the author takes some delight in putting his character through the mill during the course of the story.

Despite all this, there is still the “legal” part to the “legal-thriller” combo that the author uses to describe the novel, and Cavanagh uses every trick up his sleeve to ensure that the courtroom scenes are as attention-grabbing and engrossing as those that take place outside those formal and refined environs. Eddie’s sharp mind and quick wit leave the reader wishing for a glimpse of the man at the height of his legal career, and hoping for a more permanent return to the courtroom as the series (for series it is) continues. It’s a rare talent that can make the staid and solemn courtroom environment as entertaining and engrossing as the against-the-clock all-out action that makes up much of the rest of the novel.

The Defence heralds the arrival of a fresh new voice in Irish crime fiction, a voice that is as authentically American as the character at the centre of this excellent debut novel. A gripping read from first page to last, it is a new breed of thriller that nevertheless pays its dues to those who have come before: Jack Reacher, John McClane and, maybe, Perry Mason. Cavanagh’s is a name you should expect to hear a lot of in the coming years, and Eddie Flynn is destined to become as instantly recognisable as his forebears. In a word: unmissable.

THE FIRST STONE by Elliott Hall

the-first-stone-elliott-hall THE FIRST STONE

Elliott Hall (

John Murray (


hrpv2Elliott Hall’s 2009 debut novel, and the first in his Felix Strange trilogy, The First Stone, is the subject of the latest Hodderscape Review Project. Don’t forget to check out the thoughts of my fellow reviewers, to which you’ll find links on the Hodderscape website.

Brother Isaiah is America’s best-loved preacher. When his body is found in his hotel room shortly after he arrives in New York at the head of his Crusade of Love, foul play is the most obvious explanation. Felix Strange, veteran of the holy war in Iran, is now a private investigator who specialises in the seedier jobs for which men in his profession are best known. So when he is hired to look into Brother Isaiah’s death – and keep it quiet while he does so – he finds himself wondering what made him the ideal candidate. Something is rotten at the core of America’s religious government and Brother Isaiah’s death is only the tip of the iceberg. Felix Strange would rather not be involved but, for now at least, he has little choice in the matter.

The First Stone, as well as being Elliott Hall’s debut novel, is also the first in a trilogy featuring private eye Felix Strange. In many ways a Philip Marlowe clone, there is little to set Strange apart from others in the same genre until you take a look at the world in which he operates: Hall has created a frightening – but extremely realistic – vision of an all-too-possible future America that elevates Strange above his fictional contemporaries and uses his story to present a stark warning to the book’s readers.

This is America of a very near future: Houston is gone, the only American casualty in a short-lived nuclear war with Iran (whose capital city Tehran was the only other casualty). In the wake of these atrocities, America has turned to God for help, electing a president on a deeply religious mandate. Now run by a group of twelve Elders, the country is slowly slipping back into the dark ages, the gender divide widening instead of shrinking, and even punishment for most venial sins backed up by the force of law. Around this background, Hall has constructed a number of groups which all, on the surface, are working towards the same aim but which each has its own hidden agenda. Groups such as the Crusade of Love, and Ezekiel White’s Committee for Child Protection, a sort of police force tasked with the safety of the nation’s souls.

Throw into this mix Felix Strange, atheist private eye who is considered Jewish by virtue of the fact that his mother was a Jew, and the scene is set for fireworks from the outset. Strange is a veteran of the holy war waged by America on Iran, and was in-country when Tehran turned into "Ghost Town". Like many of his fellow soldiers, he has returned to the United States with an unwanted souvenir, an inexplicable and incurable unnamed disease that leaves him crippled with pain and prone to fits if he doesn’t take his regular medications. And in a right-wing, God-fearing America where socialised healthcare has never existed, affording these medications is often nigh on impossible, which is why he is happy to accept this commission without asking too many questions.

Strange is, as I’ve mentioned, a clone of Chandler’s Marlowe, as many great private detectives created since the 1950s have been before him, down to the very clothes he wears, and the wise-cracking attitude that tends to get him into trouble. Like Chandler, Hall isn’t afraid to put his creation through the mill, and the reader can expect Strange to spend large portions of the novel in severe pain and/or serious trouble. Throw in a beautiful woman, a member of the Crusade of Love whose job is to entrap sinners – adulterers, usurers – and The First Stone is the perfect recipe for a top-rate PI mystery, which will see Felix Strange mixing with government, police, gangsters and even the FBI in the quest not only to find the answers he’s been paid to find, but also to keep his own head on his shoulders and remain one step ahead of the myriad groups out for his blood.

In part driven by the characters – Strange himself has a certain charm that makes him the ideal voice for the story, but the other characters such as the enigmatic Iris, the rich Thorpe, the power-hungry White, are equally as engaging – and in part by the strange new world that Hall has created out of the ashes of this world that we know so well, The First Stone is part classic private eye novel, part dystopian noir. Regardless of which part appeals to the individual, it’s a well-rounded novel that not only comes to a satisfying conclusion, but also gets a hook into the reader guaranteeing that we’ll be back for the rest of the trilogy (fortunately for us, since The First Stone was first published in 2009, the complete trilogy is already available and has just recently been released in a lovely omnibus edition by Hodder).

As well as the rollicking mystery tale, The First Stone contains much food for thought. This warped vision of the future is all the more frightening because of how realistic it seems, how close to our own reality this alternate world is. Part parody, part warning, it is a novel that could only have been written from the outsider’s perspective (Hall is a Canadian who lives in England) without devolving into pure satire or political rhetoric.

A darkly comic creation built around a tightly-plotted mystery and set in a New York that is but a single election away from the one we know, Elliott Hall’s The First Stone is the perfect introduction to an excellent reimagining of a comfortable old character trope. Felix Strange is exactly what we want in a fictional private eye and Hall’s debut novel is the perfect introduction to the man’s weird and wonderful world. I’ll definitely be picking up the rest of the trilogy, and will be waiting with bated breath for Hall’s next outing.

A TAP ON THE WINDOW by Linwood Barclay


Linwood Barclay (

Orion (


Heading home from an out-of-town job on a wet and miserable night, Cal Weaver stops at a red light close to Griffon, New York’s local hangout spot. When a teenage girl taps on his window and asks for a lift, Cal knows it’s the height of stupidity, but the fact that the girl recognises him as "Scott’s father" causes him to renege. In the darkness, he can’t see much, but he does notice the scratch on the back of her left hand. Claiming to feel ill, the girl asks Cal to pull into the nearby fast food restaurant. When she gets back into the car, the scratch is gone, the original girl replaced by someone new. When one of the girls turns up dead, and the other is reported missing, Cal finds himself dead centre of the police investigation. But there is more going on here than the disappearance of a teenage girl, secrets and political enmities that define the small town of Griffon and which, if he follows the trail, may lead Cal to some understanding of how his own son died eight months earlier.

Linwood Barclay recently described the first chapter of his novels as a hook designed to draw the reader into the story. In the case of A Tap on the Window, this is certainly very true: we’re as intrigued by this switch as Cal Weaver is, and the book quickly becomes that old cliché of reviews of thriller novels: unputdownable. Far from a cliché itself, though, the story is original and engaging, drawing the reader ever onwards, increasing the sense of mystery and tension in tandem, notch by notch, as we progress through the chapters.

Told from the point of view of Cal, a private detective and ex-policeman, we see the town of Griffon as he does: as an outsider who, despite having lived here for six years, still doesn’t have the full measure of the town. There is a Stepford or Midwich feel to the town, a certain quality that sets it apart from the rest of small-town America: the police force seem to be a law unto themselves, beating out-of-towners or young troublemakers rather than going to the trouble of processing them through official channels, sexually assaulting young women in the guise of searching them for illegal substances. The town’s mayor is a lone voice in condemning this approach, the vast majority of the townspeople happy to have a peaceful town, unaffected by the sort of trouble that plagues the city of Buffalo, a mere twenty miles distant. It’s this setup, a large group of otherwise seemingly normal people who live in fear of the big bad world bursting their tiny little bubble of peace and harmony, that makes the setting feel slightly odd and gives the reader the uncomfortable sense that what’s going on may not conform to our usual expectations.

Cal is an unwilling participant in the events of the novel, drawn into the mystery through sheer bad luck, and a nagging need to see the mystery through to the end. He’s a man with baggage: his teenage son threw himself from the top of a four storey building while high on Ecstasy eight months prior to the story’s opening, and it’s a burden that still weighs heavily on Cal’s mind, affecting his relationship with his wife, and also with the people in town who knew his son prior to his death. Cal has a short temper, which frequently leads him to trouble, and while the reader never suspects for a minute that Cal could have been involved in the death of the second young girl, it’s obvious to see why the police might view him as a suspect, under the circumstances. In some ways, this defect makes Cal more real for the reader, and certainly more human than his fellow Griffoners.

Barclay carefully has carefully constructed his plot, and his characters, to keep the reader in the dark as much as possible. It is impossible to know who to trust, and who to suspect, all helped by the first person point of view that removes any outside influence for the reader. When the revelations come, and they come thick and fast as the book approaches its climax, they are surprising and, best of all, satisfying. Barclay doesn’t make life easy for his central character, though, so expect to be shocked. It’s a wonderfully-written novel, a very literate thriller that manages to move at a cracking pace without resorting to the usual tricks of the trade: short chapters filled with short sentences, or screenplays barely re-written in prose form. Barclay has an ear for the language used in northern New York state and, as a result, the dialogue flows with ease, worthy, perhaps, of comparison to the dialogue of the late, great Elmore Leonard.

The perfect hook to get the reader interested in the first place, and enough substance to keep them turning pages once the scene has been set, Linwood Barclay’s latest novel, A Tap on the Window, is a masterclass in thriller writing. Intelligent, witty, exciting and with a touch of oddity that serves to set it apart from others in the genre, this is crime-fiction escapism at its finest. It’s my first experience with Mr Barclay; it certainly won’t be my last.

WE ARE HERE by Michael Marshall

WE ARE HERE - Michael Marshall WE ARE HERE

Michael Marshall (

Orion Books (


On a visit to New York to meet his publisher, David bumps into a man on the street – the sort of innocent collision that happens all the time on busy city pavements – who follows him back to Penn Station and confronts him. He utters two words, part question, part command, before disappearing again: “Remember me”. When John Henderson’s girlfriend introduces him to Catherine Warren, it is because she believes he can help her. Catherine is being stalked, and when John investigates he discovers that it’s not quite as straightforward as an ex-lover or shunned suitor. As David and John become entangled in this strange new world, a man named Reinhart is rallying troops for a push that could ultimately lead to death and destruction on an epic scale.

There is something comforting, despite the subject matter, about cracking open a new Michael Marshall novel. Perhaps it’s the sense that you’re in a safe pair of hands, or maybe it’s just the knowledge that you have no way of anticipating what’s in store next from one of the most original storytellers of recent years. Like his previous novels, We Are Here straddles the boundary between straight crime/thriller and straight horror as Marshall introduces us to a world that exists just on the periphery of our own, a group of people who live in the shadows and who are largely forgotten, or ignored, by the people around them.

In much the same way that Die Hard 2 is a sequel to Die Hard (the same central character finding himself in yet another, unrelated, but equally dangerous situation), We Are Here is a sequel to Marshall’s 2009 novel, Bad Things. John Henderson, who we last saw in the wilds of Washington state has moved to New York with Kristina and is now living and working in the East Village. Beyond that, there are no other major connections between the two novels, though long-time readers will have a better understanding of John’s background than people using We Are Here as a jumping-on point (if you haven’t read Marshall before, though, you should by no means allow this to deter you from starting here). In a move that now seems to be traditional for the author, Henderson’s sections are told in the first person, while the rest of the characters get chapters of their own, narrated in a third-person voice.

The voice itself is engaging and down-to-earth, and much of the story is told in a conversational tone that is sometimes at odds with what’s actually going on. Contrary to what you might expect, this works very well, and serves to tie the different elements of the story (often off-the-wall) neatly together into a coherent whole.

They made their way toward the platform via which they’d arrived at the station that morning. This turned out not to be where the train was departing from, however, and all at once they were in a hurry and lost and oh-my-god-we’re-screwed. David figured out where they were supposed to be and pointed at Dawn to lead the way. She forged the way with the brio of someone having a fine old time in the city, emboldened by a bucketful of wine, clattering down the steps to the platform and starting to trot when she saw their train in preparation for departure.

The nature of these shadowy people referenced by the novel’s title is never fully explained. A number of theories are presented to the reader, in the form of theories held by various characters (are they imaginary friends long since forgotten by the people who dreamed them up? Are they ghosts? Are they something else entirely?), and the reader is left to decide for themselves which they prefer, or which makes the most sense. Regardless of which theory is correct, Marshall has created a complex societal structure and set of rules which govern the actions of the group, giving these people some substance and background that is woven neatly into the fabric of the story.

The return of John Henderson gives us a sense of familiarity and I, for one, enjoy the various interconnections between his books that define the strange world that Marshall began creating with his Straw Men novels. We Are Here also introduces a huge cast of new characters, which is a departure from the small, controlled groups of central characters that we’re used to seeing in the author’s works. With Marshall’s deft touch, though, each stands out as an individual and it is easy to keep track as the story progresses. In Reinhart, Marshall has created one of the most sinister and evil characters you’re likely to encounter in a piece of fiction. Despite the fact that he spends much of the story lurking in the background, his brief appearances are memorable and shiver-inducing.

Another winner from a master of his game, We Are Here is a welcome addition to Michael Marshall’s growing catalogue. Part crime, part horror, part urban fantasy, it should appeal to new and old readers alike with its mixture of dark comedy, horror, mystery and abrupt violence. Fast-paced, tightly-plotted and beautifully-written, We Are Here packs thrills and chills into an intelligent story that, despite its fantastical elements, never loses its plausibility or sense of realism. If you’re already a fan of Michael Marshall then you’ll know what to expect. If you haven’t read the man’s books before, then We Are Here is an excellent place to start. Either way, you’re in for a treat.

GUN MACHINE by Warren Ellis


Warren Ellis (

Mulholland Books (


On playing back the 911 recording, it’d seem that Mrs. Stegman was more concerned that the man outside her apartment door was naked than that he had a big shotgun.

John Tallow is a New York City detective, riding on the coattails of his much more popular partner. When they respond to a 911 call concerning a man with a shotgun, both Tallow’s partner and the naked man end up dead, and Tallow stumbles across the strangest thing he has ever seen: one of the apartments in the building the naked man has been terrorising is full of guns, arranged on the walls and floor in seemingly deliberate patterns. Closer examination shows that these are no ordinary guns: 200 or so weapons, ranging from an 1836 flintlock pistol to Son of Sam’s .44 Bulldog, each one can be linked directly to a murder carried out in the greater New York area at some point during the past twenty years. Dragged off mandatory leave, Tallow finds that his popularity in the department has gone down a few notches, but as he sets to work with CSUs Scarly and Bat he discovers a new enthusiasm for the job and a serial killer with a seemingly endless supply of patience.

Gun Machine, Warren Ellis’ second novel (though the first to get a UK release), starts off with the light-hearted quip about Mrs Stegman’s 911 call, but by the time the first chapter is finished – a mere five pages – there is blood on the walls, and John Tallow’s life has become much more interesting than he might have liked. The setup is fairly straightforward – an apartment full of guns that turn out to be connected with a series of unconnected murders ranging over the past twenty years – but it provides Ellis with the perfect vehicle to develop his central character. When we first meet John Tallow, he has lost any enthusiasm for his job that he may once have had. “People wondered why John Tallow didn’t put a hell of a lot of effort into being a cop anymore” we’re told. Thrown into an impossible situation – the apartment full of guns is nothing but a headache to the NYPD, unsolvable and potentially embarrassing, and his assignment to the case seems like little more than a convenient excuse to force Tallow out of the job – Tallow nevertheless feels he has something to prove, and enough drive to get him started. He is, despite his belligerence, a character that will appeal to many readers, and we’re carried along by the need to see how he develops over the course of the story, as much as by the story itself.

The supporting cast are no less engaging, although none of them seem to be the type of people that should be let out alone. Bat and Scarly, a pair of crime scene investigators, are assigned to assist Tallow. More than a little insane they provide, at times, an element of comic relief (however darkly humorous) while also playing an important role in helping Tallow investigate the case. While this pair are excellent at what they do, they’re unlike anything you’ve seen on CSI: NY.

Scarly was a birdlike woman in her midtwenties in the process of yelling “Of course I don’t care if you’re bleeding! I’m fucking autistic!” at an ill-looking man with five years on her whose appearance wasn’t improved by the absence of a chunk of left ear.

“You know what, Scarly?” the bleeding man said, flapping his arms. “There’s a letter in my apartment that says that if I’m found dead at work it’s going to be your fault and you probably did it deliberately.”

Outside this small group, we find the killer himself. A man referred to throughout the novel only as The Hunter, he sees two different versions of New York and can seemingly transport himself between them. Ellis writes a number of chapters from the man’s point of view, which gives us an interesting perspective on an extremely creepy character.

Gun Machine is at heart a straightforward police procedural populated by the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There is a heavy reliance on coincidence to drive Tallow’s case forward, which might have made for a frustrating read had this been a straightforward detective novel, but that’s far from the case here. What drives the story are the characters and their relationships, the history of the city, the concepts of one potential future New York that Ellis peppers throughout the story and, most importantly, the gun machine itself – why are all these guns stuck to the walls and floor of this one apartment? What is the purpose of those patterns on the walls? And do those spaces mean what they seem to mean? Like other writers who honed their craft on comics – Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey – Ellis brings a certain something to his novels that set them apart from anything else. While not as twisted or dark as Crooked Little Vein (which I would urge you to read if you have not already done so), Gun Machine is nevertheless not for the fainthearted.

Extremely smart, very funny and intensely dark in places, Gun Machine shows that Warren Ellis is as comfortable in this form of storytelling as he is in the form for which he is better known. In some ways it’s quite depressing: this is the first book I’ve read in 2013, and I’m finding it hard to envisage a better one this year. Unlike anything else you’ve read, Gun Machine is a quick (barely 300 pages) and action-packed read that will keep you hooked from that opening line. Outlandish but very believable, it’s an excellent place to get to know this fine writer and will leave you hoping for more. I really can’t recommend this highly enough.

THE INQUISITOR by Mark Allen Smith

inquisitor_hardback_1849836558_300 THE INQUISITOR

Mark Allen Smith (

Simon & Schuster (


Geiger is a man without a past; his life started with his arrival, several years before, in New York. Before that, a black hole. After chance leads him to the local Mafia boss, he decides to go into Information Retrieval – torturing subjects to extract information required by paying clients – and discovers that he is very good at it. Geiger rarely draws blood, but he has a knack for knowing truth from lies, and for understanding exactly how to get the information he needs. When a client presents a twelve-year-old boy as the subject instead of the expected adult, Geiger acts quickly without considering the consequences for himself or his partner, Harry: he grabs the boy and runs. But the client has the resources to track them down, and the motivation for getting the boy back and finding out what he knows; everyone else is expendable.

I will freely admit that when I read the blurb for The Inquisitor and learned that the author started out life as a screenwriter, I set my expectations for a very specific type of thriller. You know the type – two-dimensional characters and a very cinematic experience; a Jason Statham movie in book form. So I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. The central characters spring from the page fully-formed and with complete backstories, and the book reads like a well-structured novel, rather than the dialogue- and action-heavy converted screenplay we might have expected.

Geiger is a man of few words, and something of an enigma, even to himself. As events progress, we begin to see glimpses into his past, and the events that formed him. Throw in the fact that he has been seeing a psychiatrist since his “rebirth” and Geiger suddenly seems more human than he pretends to be. Given his line of work, he is clearly a man of few scruples, but he does have a strict moral code for which he is willing to sacrifice everything. It is in his relationship with his business partner, Harry, and, ultimately, his fast friendship with the boy, that we see the humanity behind the stone facade and find someone worth rooting for. His choice of name shows us something of the man’s personality:

At first he’d used the name Gray, then Black. One day, passing a Barnes & Noble bookstore, he spotted a book about the artwork of H. R. Giger. The byzantine images appealed to him, as did the name with its twin g’s. For visual symmetry, he added an e and so became Geiger.

Smith offers a taut thriller with dark undertones. The events take place over the course of 24 hours and this compact time-scale allows the author to ratchet up the tension very quickly once the introductions are out of the way. It’s a fast-paced and, most importantly, believable piece of fiction. Smith manages to keep things down-to-earth and on a tight rein: Geiger is no superman, and as the story progresses he becomes more ragged, to the point where we wonder how he keeps moving. The author manages to tell his story without levelling half of New York and, with the exception of one or two little surprises, presents a straightforward tale that is engrossing, entertaining and uncomplicated. Which is not to say that it’s predictable; far from it, but you won’t find any convoluted twists or high-concept macguffins designed purely to confuse the reader. At its heart, The Inquisitor is a tale of evil versus evil – let’s not forget what Geiger does for a living. It’s a daring concept for a first-time author, but it succeeds due to careful plotting and characters who are immediately engaging and intriguing.

The Inquisitor is Mark Allen Smith’s first novel. Well-written and well- (if simply-) plotted, it serves to introduce the character of Geiger and sidekick Harry to the world. It is unlikely, in this reader’s humble opinion, that this is the last we’ll see of either of them. Geiger presents as a cross between Jack Reacher and Sheldon Cooper. While The Inquisitor may not appeal to fans of The Big Bang Theory, fans of Lee Child’s series would do well to give it a shot: it’s an excellent first novel, and brings with it the promise of more to come.

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