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December 2020

A LOUTH TRAGEDY . . . Part Three

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ON SATURDAY 23rd JULY, 1927, Bertram Horace Kirby was told in Louth Magistrates Court that he would be sent to the next Lincoln Assizes to be tried for the murder of his wife on Tuesday 11th July. Throughout the hearing, Kirby had spoken only once, to tell the court that he was handing everything over to his solicitor, and would have nothing more to say, other than admitting that Minnie Eleanor Kirby had died at his hands. Meanwhile, poor Minnie had been buried in her home town of Boston.

Cemetery_Church,_Boston“The funeral of Mrs. Minnie Eleanor Kirby, Louth, took place at Boston Cemetery on Friday afternoon last. The coffin was conveyed in motor hearse, there were one car and a motor-car for the mourners, who numbered six. The most pathetic figure was the deceased’s son, Mr. Harry Kirby, tall and fair haired, who appeared very distressed, particularly at the committal portion of the service. The remains were first of all taken into the little church, where a short service was conducted by the Rev. O. K. Wrigley, who also officiated at the graveside. The floral tributes were both numerous and beautiful. Included were the following: “Mother,” with fondest love from her boys, Harry, Ralph and Norman; To darling Minnie, from her sorrowing sister, Emilie; “Pax ; At rest ” darling sister Minnie with fondest love, from Edith; to dear Minnie from her sorrowing brother and sister, Charlie and Judy, Gillingham ; Auntie and Uncle; Phoebe: In affectionate remembrance from L. A. and M. Kirby ; with deepest sympathy from L. A. and A. C. Kirby; Kate; Mr. and Mrs. G. A. Brough and family; R. Watson; B. and W Took ; Miss Carter and Miss Teanby.

The events surrounding the killing of Minnie Kirby became clear following witness statements in front of Louth magistrates. On the morning of 11th of July, at 7.30 am, Mrs Kirby had taken delivery of some letters from the postman, and a little later, 8 year-old Norman had set off to school. At some point during the morning she had been sitting at the table writing a letter to her son Ralph, who had emigrated to Canada. Bertram Kirby had fetched an axe from the woodshed and struck one savage blow to the base of her neck, probably killing her instantly. Kirby had made some effort to clean up the blood around his wife’s head, but had made to attempt to move her body.

He then walked into Louth where he called at the home of Mrs Took, where his older son Harry was a lodger. He asked Mrs Took if young Norman could come for his dinner, as he himself had to go to Grimsby on business and his wife had travelled to London by a morning train. On the way to Mrs Took’s house, he had called in at The Brown Cow pub, at the junction of Church Street and Newmarket and asked the landlady, a Mrs White if he could leave a bag and a parcel with her. She testified that Kirby looked “pale and agitated in his manner”.

On several occasions during the 11th and 12th July, Kirby took various parcels of women’s clothing to a little second hand shop run by Mrs Ryley, at 8 Eastgate, and exchanged them for cash. On the evening of 11th July, Kirby went to the Wheatsheaf Inn and played dominoes for most of the evening. He then walked back to the bungalow and spent the night sleeping in the same house as the corpse of his wife. As we have already read, he was then arrested on the evening of 12th July.

Gordon_Hewart,_1st_Viscount_HewartWhen the case finally came to trial at Lincoln Assizes on 2nd November, it was a brief affair. Representing Kirby, Mr T.K. Fitzwalter Butler did his best to persuade the jury that Kirby was insane, reminding them that he had joined the army – The Leicestershire Regiment –  in 1914, but by early 1915 was in a mental facility at Netley Hospital, Hampshire, after attempting to commit suicide, and had subsequently been discharged as unfit for service. The Lincoln jury, however, were having none of it, and after retiring for just twenty five minutes to return a verdict of guilty. Mr Justice Swift (right) promptly donned the small square of silk known as The Black Cap and sentenced Kirby to death.

Kirby’s date with the hangman was originally scheduled for December, but a plea for a reprieve was lodged with the Home Secretary of the time, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, was not in a giving mood, and he dismissed the appeal. At 8.00 am on Wednesday 4th January, Kirby made the short walk from the condemned cell (apparently after eating the proverbial hearty breakfast) to the Lincoln Prison gallows, where Albert Pierrepoint tightened the noose under his ear and pulled the fatal lever.

This is a strange case, and a horrid one, as the killing took place yards away from where I spent many happy hours as a youngster. No-one ever established a plausible motive for the murder. Kirby was clearly in a dire mental state, but what did he hope to gain from his wife’s death? Between the killing and his arrest he claimed to have sold the bungalow, but there was no evidence of this. I have no idea what became of the bungalow – a fellow train-spotter, now old like me, remembers going to it as a dare to see if he could see the ghost. And what became of the boys? Ralph may have lived the rest of his life out in his adopted Canadian home, and there is a record of a Harry Kirby dying in Colchester in the 1960s, but of young Norman, not a trace. Minnie lies in Boston Cemetery, in a rather overgrown grave (below) which can be found with a bit of effort and help from the cemetery keeper.

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And Bertram? His grave is probably marked by one of these modest little headstones in the prison burial ground with the walls of Lincoln Castle.

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A LOUTH TRAGEDY . . . Part Two

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Heneage copyTHE STORY SO FAR … It is July 1927, and we are in the quiet market town of Louth in the Lincolnshire Wolds. King George V has his head on the stamps and coins, Stanley Baldwin is the Conservative Prime Minister, while in parliament, Sir Arthur Pelham Heneage (left) represents Louth. All is not quiet however in a wooden bungalow close to the level crossing on Stewton Lane. The body of Minnie Eleanor Kirby has been discovered lying on the floor of one of the rooms. She has been dead for some hours, and the cause of death is clearly a massive wound to the base of her skull.

Inspector Davies of Lincolnshire Constabulary, alerted by Mrs Kirby’s worried son Harry, has forced an entry into the bungalow and made the grisly discovery. A few feet away from the lifeless body of Minnie Kirby is a large axe, bloodstained, and which would later be identified by the pathologist as exactly fitting the fatal wound. Suspicion immediately falls on Minnie Kirby’s husband Bertram, and while the poor woman’s corpse is removed to the mortuary for further investigation, the police begin their search for him. It was not to be a long or difficult manhunt. The White Horse Inn was one of several pubs that Kirby was known to frequent, and on the evening of Tuesday 12th July, PC Morris and Inspector Davies found Kirby engrossed in a game of dominoes. After being informed that he was to be arrested, he is reported to have said:

“All right. I am going to be fair with you. I am not going to cause any trouble. My God, boy, you don’t know how things are! I hope you never will. You don’t know what I had to put up with.”

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Kirby “came quietly” and was taken to the police cells. He was initially remanded until the forthcoming Saturday, 16th July. He was brought before the magistrates, and was remanded again to allow the police to prepare a case to put to the public prosecutor. Needless to say, the atmosphere in the town was described as “electric” by one feverish reporter, who went on to write:

Toen hall“A big crowd assembled outside the Town Hall in an endeavour to catch a glimpse of the prisoner, but the proceedings took place at the Superintendent’s office at the County Police Station in another part of the town.

Here, in a small room, before Mr Mark Smith and Mr W. C Street, with only the Clerk (Mr H. E. Roberts), Supt. C. Skinner, Inspector Davies and members of the press, Kirby was brought in. He trembled violently, his eyes had a vacant stare and he had to be supported by two police officers.

The prisoner is of stout build, with greyish hair and he wore no collar, his shirt being open at the neck. He was represented by Mr R. H. Helmer, of the well-known Louth firm of solicitors, Allison and Helmer.”

Part of the dossier being prepared for the prosecutor was a number of letters Kirby had written, and which were found in the bungalow and in his possession when arrested. They suggested a man at the end of his tether, preparing to enter into some kind of a pact with his wife. One passage read:

“My wife is my greatest pride in life. . . We have realised our financial state affairs, and come to the conclusion that death is the only way out of them. Please bury darling Minnie and myself together. We have loved one another.”

He went on to write:

HEADLINE 5“I have fell across very hard times. My darling wife, who has been my greatest pal in life, has realised this fact as well. God bless her. No-one could wish for a better wife , mother or comforter than her. We have realised our financial state of affairs, and come to the conclusion that death is the only way out of the matter. I left the railway in order, as I thought, to better myself, and this failed. Eventually I found myself stranded with writs, etc, and we had nothing to eat at home.”

“I therefore volunteered to go away with the idea of obtaining work, but to no avail. After this, I walked from Louth to Boston. Here I say God bless my wife. God bless her. No man, whoever he was could possibly find a better wife than I have had. Anyhow, here is a point I wish the Coroner to take up, and when I say this I mean it to be published and not doctored, because it is absolutely the truth.”


He appeared to be passionately devoted to his youngest son, Norman:

“How pleased we are to hear you are little Norman. God bless him- how I love this little bairn – I am heartbroken. Will you ask my Auntie Julia- her name is under Mrs F Pocklington, “Eversleigh”, Carlton Road, Boston – to take during her lifetime my darling boy Norman. My Auntie Julia is the only relative he loves. He always wishes to see his Auntie Julia. Further, I wish to say my Auntie Julia and Uncle Fred have been my best friends throughout all my life – God bless them both. They have been the only faithful friends we have had through life. Please bury darling Minnie and myself together.. We have loved one another. Poor little Ralph out in Canada, and poor little Norman and Harry. Oh! he has been a good boy. God bless them all – Minnie, Harry, Ralph and Norman. God bless them all and Auntie Julia and Fred.”

This wish that Norman would be fostered by the Pocklingtons is rather odd, because they were both elderly. Indeed, Mrs Pocklington’s “lifetime” would not extend much beyond the murder, as she died two years later. It must have been immediately obvious to the town solicitor representing Kirby – and, later, to his defence barrister at Lincoln Assizes – that the only way Kirby would escape with his life from this tragedy was for his representatives to plead that he was insane.

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In Part Three
THE EVENTS OF 10th and 11th JULY REVEALED IN COURT
INSANE OR WICKED?
A DATE WITH ALBERT PIERREPOINT

A LOUTH TRAGEDY . . . Part One

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Back in the 1950s and 60s I was a regular visitor to Louth. Mother was a Louth girl, and my grandmother, although born in Yorkshire, had lived in the area since before The Great War, first in a cottage in the grounds of Tathwell Hall, where her father was Head Groom, and then in the town itself. I used to stay with her in Tennyson Road during school holidays, and blissful days they were. I had made several friends in Louth, and we did what most lads did in those innocent days – played football and cricket and went fishing. The most intense of all our passions was, however, trainspotting.

RunaboutEach summer, we used to buy what was called a Runabout Ticket. It cost twelve shillings and sixpence and was a small rectangle of stiff blue cardboard. On it was printed a stylized map of the railway network in the area. It meant we could travel on any train, between any of the stations, as often as we wanted, for a week. Crucially, it gave us access to the East Coast main line between Peterborough and Grantham, with its magnificent Gresley Pacifics and all manner of spectacular engines. At other times, however, we had to make do with the trains that ran through Louth on the Grimsby to Boston line, and one of our favourite places to trainspot was the level crossing on Stewton Lane. Between trains.we could muck about by the nearby stream where it ran through a little gully, which was known as Seven Trees Island. Happily undreamed of in those days was the fact that we were enjoying ourselves on the site of one of the most gruesome and tragic murder cases of the early twentieth century.

MINNIEIn 1927, just by the railway, there stood a small wooden bungalow, the home of Bertram Horace Kirby, 46, and his wife Minnie. They were not originally Louth people, both having come from Boston, where they had married – possibly in St Botolph’s – in 1905. They had three sons. The two oldest had left home. Harry, 21, lodged with Mrs Took in nearby Church Street, while Ralph, 17, had emigrated to Canada. There was a much later addition to the family. Leslie Norman Kirby was just 8 years old. Minnie Eleanor Kirby (right) was described as follows in subsequent press reports:

“Mrs. Kirby was tall, and of striking appearance. She was most friendly woman, and was liked very much by her neighbours. Her hobby was gardening. She had studied her subject, and she was an expert gardener, and passionately fond of her flowers. She was extremely well-read, and was a thoroughly cultured woman, clever in many ways, and musical. She was a keen churchwoman.

Mrs. Kirby was also an enthusiastic member of the Women’s Unionist Association, and canvassed in Louth at the last election. She had been educated in Boston at Miss Stothert’s High School, and for about 10 years she was head clerk at Mr. A. Simpson’s furniture store, in the Market-place. She was very well-known in Boston. At school, she was a very apt pupil, and we are informed that Miss Stothert “thought a lot of her.” During her schooldays the took part in “The Mandarin”, and other plays. She was extremely fond of rowing, and frequently enjoyed her favourite exercise on the Witham.”

KIRBYBertram Horace Kirby (left) was a year younger than his wife. He also had musical talent, and while they lived in Boston he had been church organist in the town, and the village of Frampton. He had applied himself to various trades while living in the Boston area, but had worked for almost ten years for the London and North Eastern Railway. By 1927, however, he had given this job up, and had attempted to strike out on his own as a commercial dealer.

In the early evening of Sunday 10th July , Harry Kirby called at his parents’ home, and took his mother for a stroll. Although he had moved out of the bungalow because he and his father “couldn’t get along” he had noticed nothing untoward in the atmosphere between his mother and father. He was later to admit that his father “was prone to violent tempers when he had taken drink.”

Despite all seeming well with his parents, Harry Kirby must have had a sixth sense that prompted him to visit the bungalow on Tuesday 12th July. He found the doors locked and the curtains drawn, and could make nobody hear. He walked into the town and asked for help from the police. He returned with Inspector Davies who must have also sensed something was wrong, and forced his way into the bungalow through a rear window. What he found confirmed Harry Kirby’s fears that a tragedy was about to unfold. Minnie Kirby was lying dead on the floor of the living room, on her stomach, with her head turned to one side. At the base of her skull was a savage wound which had almost separated her head from her body.

In Part Two
AN ARREST INTERRUPTS A GAME OF DOMINOES
ANGUISHED LETTERS

LONG BRIGHT RIVER . . . Between the covers

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A wintry Philadelphia is the setting for Liz Moore’s fourth novel. A female police officer, Michaela ‘Mickey’ Fitzpatrick, works the streets of Kensington, This district’s history owes much to its proximity to the Delaware River, and the fishing, milling and transport industries, but these have long since ceased, and the area is run down, dilapidated, and one of the centres of the city’s drug trade.

LBR coverThis is not a crime novel in the traditional sense, and it certainly isn’t a police procedural, despite Mickey’s profession. The plot partly involves the search for someone who is killing young women who have been forced into prostitution to feed their drug habit but, although this is resolved, it is eventually incidental to the main thrust of the novel.

Mickey comes from a dysfunctional family. Her mother is long dead, she is estranged from her father, and both she and her sister Kacey were brought up by a rather forbidding and humourless grandmother they call Gee. Micky’s career in the police force is unspectacular, but it pays the bills for her and her young son Thomas. As the blurb on the back of the book cleverly puts it,

Once inseparable, sisters Mickey and Kacey are on different paths, but they walk the same streets. Mickey on her police beat and Kacey in the shadows of the city’s darkest corners where the drug addicts and the sex workers preside.

As more women fall victim to the mystery killer, Mickey becomes ever more frantic that Kacey will be the next body wheeled on a gurney into the mortuary to await the investigation by the police pathologist. When she hears from an old friend of Kacey’s that the killer is thought to be a police officer, she confides in her immediate boss, Sergeant Ahearn. Not only is he sceptical, but he bounces the accusation back at Mickey, and she finds herself suspended and under investigation into allegations about her own conduct.

Screen Shot 2020-12-27 at 18.57.52Liz Moore (right) treats Mickey’s search for her sister on two levels: the first, and more obvious one, is a nightmare trip through the squats and shoot-up dens of Kensington in an attempt to find Kacey – a search, find and protect mission, if you will. On a more metaphorical level, the books becomes a journey through Mickey’s own past in the quest for a more elusive truth involving her family and her own identity.

As readers we have one or two tricks played on us by the author as she allows us – through Mickey’s narrative –  to make one or two assumptions, before turning those on their heads. Liz Moore’s style is interesting, particularly in the way she replays dialogue. This is a powerful and thought-provoking novel which, despite some measure of redemption, has a truly chilling final few lines.

Long Bright River came out as a Kindle and in hardback earlier this year, and this paperback edition will be published by Windmill Books on 31st December

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Book

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If you want to read the full review of the books below,
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THE FOUNDLING by STACEY HALLS

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ORANGES AND LEMONS by CHRISTOPHER FOWLER

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WHEN I COME HOME AGAIN by CAROLINE SCOTT

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BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020
A PRIVATE CATHEDRAL by JAMES LEE BURKE

James Lee Burke has reached a grand old age, but every new novel shows us that the light shines ever brighter, and his indignation at injustice, cruelty and corruption – expressed through the deeds of Dave Robicheaux and Clete Purcell – is still white hot. A Private Cathedral is a mesmerising showcase for the author’s poetic style, his awareness of the all-encompassing power of the Louisiana landscape, and his sense that history – the dead and their deeds – hasn’t gone anywhere, but is right there, hiding in the shadows. There is music – always music – to  spark our senses and remind us that a three minute pop song can be just as potent a memory trigger as Proust’s Madeleines.

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CRIME FICTION ADVENT CALENDAR . . . Week Four

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Each decorative bar is a clickable link to
a video of the book of the day and a piece of seasonal music

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Thriller

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If you want to read the full review of each novel, just click the title. The review should then open in a different window

THE SECOND WIFE by REBECCA FLEET

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POSSESSED by PETER LAWS

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BORROWED TIME by DAVID MARK

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BEST THRILLER 2020
OFF SCRIPT by GRAHAM HURLEY

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 19.20.17If you were to ask the man or woman browsing in the books aisle at ASDA or TESCO to name a distinguished living British crime fiction writer, I would wager that few would come up with name Graham Hurley. , Rankin, James, McDermid and Child might get a mention – and all credit to them – but Graham Hurley is something of a connoisseur’s choice. I’ll be quite up front – I love his writing. The Joe Faraday novels were just wonderful, but then Mr H killed him off. He kept us entertained with the Jimmy Suttle stories which were, in a way, Faraday novels without Faraday, but then Jimmy disappeared. Hurley’s latest creation is not a copper. She is a 39 year-old actress with a brain tumour, and a back story that involves a very ‘dodgy geezer’, a former criminal ganglord called Hayden Prentice. Yes, there is plenty of crime, and an abundance of thrills but, above all, there is Hurley’s superb ability to create memorable characters and tell a mesmerising story. Click the author’s picture (above right) to learn more.

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Historical Crime

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All historical crime writers have two main tasks; first, to pose a plausible mystery, whether that is a murder to be solved or a conspiracy to be unraveled; second, they have to do their period research, and get it spot on, otherwise there will be an endless queue of sharp-eyed nit-pickers who will be ready to pounce on the slightest inaccuracy or anachronism. The very best of these writers have a third skill- and that is to weave the first two tasks together into a seamless cloth so that the reader is back in time, be it fifty, one hundred, or three hundred years ago, and completely at one with the protagonists of the story. Here are four historical crime novels that I have loved during 2020. To read the full review, just click the title.

THE MOLTEN CITY by CHRIS NICKSON

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THE MUSIC BOX ENIGMA by RN MORRIS

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THE TAINTED by CAUVERY MADHAVAN

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BEST HISTORICAL CRIME 2020
THE NIGHT RAIDERS by JIM KELLY

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 18.32.03I have long been a fan of Jim Kelly’s other two series, the Philip Dryden books and the Peter Shaw stories which, although firmly set in the present day, always feature plot lines where history has an unpleasant habit of intruding on the present. With this third set of books – set in 1940s Cambridge – we are ‘in’ history, albeit one which is in living memory for many people. Detective Inspector Eden Brooke is a fascinating character. Physically damaged and mentally scarred by his horrific treatment as a WW1 prisoner of war, he does his job thoughtfully and with great sensitivity as he watches civilian Cambridge struggle to come to terms with what it really means to be at war. In the earlier books in the series, we are in the so called  ‘phony war’, but as the title suggests, Night Raids sees the full horror of total war come to the streets of the city. For anyone new to Jim Kelly’s books, you can learn more by clicking on his photograph (above right).

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2020 . . . Best Police Procedural

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For many of us, the Police Procedural remains the staple of our crime fiction reading diet. That the genre remains so lively after so many decades is a tribute to the ingenuity and assiduous research of the authors. Here are the four books that I enjoyed the most in 2020. To read the full review, just click the titles.

STILL LIFE by VAL McDERMID

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CRY BABY by MARK BILLINGHAM

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AFTER THE FIRE by JO SPAIN

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BEST POLICE PROCEDURAL 2020
BURY THEM DEEP by JAMES OSWALD

Screen Shot 2020-12-11 at 18.53.09The most crowded room in the mansion of Crime Fiction is the one containing all the Detective Inspectors. Why so many? Probably because in real life a DI’s seniority allows them to become involved in serious criminal cases, but they are not so elevated that they spend most of their time behind a desk juggling budgets and ticking boxes on diversity surveys. So, for a fictional DI to standout from the throng, they must have something a little bit different. With due apologies for execuspeak, Tony McLean’s USP is that he has an awareness of another world beyond the one inhabited with fellow – living – human beings. This is both a blessing and a curse, but James Oswald handles it with a great deal of nuance and restraint. There are no Woman In Black type shocks, and McLean certainly doesn’t “see dead people”. What we do have is a growing sense of unease, with something just at the corner of our peripheral vision maybe, and that something is certainly not benevolent. For more about James Oswald, click his picture (above left).

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