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English Crime Fiction

HAPPY EVER AFTER . . . Between the covers

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C.C. MacDonald’s debut novel is a psycho-thriller which mines the rich seam of middle-class anxiety and social neuroses which has become a staple of recent English crime fiction. Naomi and Charlie, along with toddler Prue, have relocated from the hipster London district they can no longer afford, kissing goodbye to the artisan bakeries, faux village ambience and the coffee shops where the wi-fi signal is as vital as the alchemy of the barrista. They now live in a rambling Victorian house in Margate, on the Kent coast, a town which MacDonald himself refers to as Shoreditch-on-Sea.

Naomi is a feature writer of some sort, while Charlie is an entrepreneur designer in the tech industry. While a succession of sharp-intake-of-breath builders and carpenters transform the neglected house into a Sunday supplement paradise, Naomi is desperate to conceive a second child. Naturally, both she and Charlie have smartphone apps which track her fertility cycle and give the couple vital windows when hurried coupling should produce little Prue’s sibling. Sadly, none of the digital wizardry seems to work. Charlie is all-too-often not up-to-snuff, and Naomi’s obsessive quest is becoming counter productive.

HEA coverWhile on her daily run there and back to Prue’s nursery school, Naomi meets a stunningly attractive alpha male called Sean, and his bluff insouciance is such a contrast with Charlie’s needy self-absorption that she is smitten. One thing leads to another – the ‘another’ being hurried stand-up sex in the shower cubicle at a local leisure centre – and guess what? Sean’s urgent thirty seconds has done the job, and Naomi is, at last, pregnant, but possibly by the wrong man.

Cue much heart-searching by Naomi as she tries to get to grips with the moral dilemma of her situation. Sean, however, is not around, however, either to help or to hinder. When Naomi discovers that Sean was only at the nursery on a baby-sitting job, she tries to find him. His apparent disappearance is resolved when Naomi discovers that he has not only been hiding in plain sight, but actually conspiring to stalk her and threaten the already fragile happy family she has tried to create.

MacDonald doesn’t set out to make us laugh with obvious satire, but he has fun casting a jaundiced eye on Naomi’s preoccupations. She is at a rather pretentious playgroup called ‘Sing, Sign and Movement.’

“She looks around the huge room at bored dads looking at football news on their phones, harassed mums in sportswear attempting to marshall small-scale civil wars between siblings and sugar-amped children rocketing around like derailed dodgems. She never feels further from her life in London than when she’s somewhere like this.”

Later, she is living the life at a popular café:

“Kids run riot between the replica Eames chairs as Charlie bustles between them carrying a tray. Some people talk a good game when it comes to doing everything for their children but the parents here have come for the artisan coffee and to talk to people like them in a décor that resembles something they’ve seen on Instagram and sod it if their child has to fight with ten others to play with the lone Ikea kitchen.”

CCMAny sense of lifestyle mockery, gentle or otherwise, dissipates once we reach the final quarter of the book. Naomi discovers that whoever Sean really is, his plans for her and her family involve much than a few moments of lust. I certainly didn’t see the plot twist coming, and MacDonald (right) springs one surprise after another, right up to the final paragraphs. If you can’t make sense of the brief chapter interludes which consist of MSN messages (remember them?) between some bitchy schoolgirls, don’t fret – you will.

While Happy Ever After won’t leave you with a warm and life affirming glow about people’s basic decency, it is a rattling good read, full of acerbic observation and dark character insights. It is published by Harvill Secker and is out on 23rd January.

I have a mint unopened hardback copy of Happy Ever After, and it needs a good home. To be in the draw to win it, just ‘like’ this post here or on the Fully Booked Facebook page. You can also check my twitter feed, and RT or like any of the links to this review. Competition closes 10.00pm Tuesday 28th January. UK addresses only, please.

ALL THAT IS BURIED . . . Between the covers

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ATIB coverAll the fun of the fair? They are strange throwbacks to an earlier, perhaps more innocent time, these funfairs that travel the country setting up in this or that town for a few days of loud music, strings of multicoloured light bulbs swinging in the wind, the shrieks of excited children and the unique smell of candyfloss and toffee apples. All That Is Buried, the latest case for Robert Scragg’s coppers Jake Porter and Nick Styles begins with an abduction in one such fair, pitched on a field in a London suburb. We see some of the story through the eyes of the killer. Our man – if he is indeed the culprit – describes the fair:

“Around him, the ebb and flow of the people is a chaotic palette of colour. Sounds swirl, overlap, conversations impossible to separate from the cloud of white noise as he picks his way between rides. Oversized teacups spin in lazy circles.Squeak of socks on rubber as children launch themselves skywards on a bouncy castle.”

One minute, seven year-old Libby Hallforth is at the fair. Next minute, she is gone, her mum and dad distracted for a few seconds. That’s all it takes for a child to vanish. When Porter visits the parents in their grim tower block flat he finds “lives of quiet desperation”, to be sure, but he is not convinced that Libby’s parents are quite what they seem to be at first glance.

The search for Libby goes round in ever decreasing circles until a chance sighting of someone who might be her takes Porter and his team to an East London park. They don’t find Libby, but what they do find turns the case on its head. On an island in a boating lake, they find roses:

“A mixture of blood reds, soft whites, pale peaches and buttery yellows..”

But beneath the roses lies something lacking their fragile beauty, far less fragrant and indescribably more sinister. The search for Libby Hallforth, in the time it takes for a man to turn a sod of earth with a spade, takes on a whole new dimension.

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The book, to a degree, is formulaic. We have all the usual components of a British police procedural: a DI and a Sergeant are the main characters, the DI having the shadow of personal tragedy hanging over him; the DI has a boss who is more of a desk copper than a crime fighter; there are an assortment of nasty gangsters, druggies and petty crooks on the fringes of the story; deep at the heart of the plot, however is a distinctly malevolent individual who takes human lives – many of them.

Th said, Robert Scragg brings much more to the party. What impressed me most was the genuine sense of humanity, compassion and mutual respect between Porter and Styles. To call it a symbiosis is perhaps rather too grand, but they fight each other’s corner and make allowances when either of them slips up. There is a feel-good factor about the novel, despite the harrowing nature of the crimes the pair are trying to solve.

It would be giving too much away to divulge the outcome, but the eventual solution caught me unawares and was an imaginative plot twist that worked beautifully without being too extravagant or showy in a “look at me, no hands!” kind of way.

All That Is Buried is published by Allison & Busby and will be out in hardback and Kindle on 23rd January. For reviews of the previous two Porter and Styles novels, click on the images below.

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ENGLAND’S FINEST . . . Between the covers

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For newcomers to the sublime world of Arthur Bryant and John May, the new collection of short stories written by their biographer, Christopher Fowler, contains a handy pull-out-and-keep guide to the personnel doings of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. OK, I lie – don’t try and pull it out because it will wreck a beautiful book, but the other bits are true.

Bryant & May are both impossibly old, and so this gives Fowler the licence to set their investigations anywhere between the Blitz and Brexit. These stories gleefully span the years, and established B&M hands are rewarded with the usual mix of arcane cultural references, one-liner gags, London psychogeography and stunning investigative insights from Arthur. Cosy entertainment? Not a bit of it. Fowler leavens the fun with a sense of melancholy which provides a haunting echo to the laughter.

9780857525697.jpg-nggid047297-ngg0dyn-292x0-00f0w010c010r110f110r010t010Leaving aside the pen pictures, introductions and postscripts, there are twelve stories. They are, for the most part, enjoyably formulaic in a Sherlockian way in that something inexplicable happens, May furrows his brow and Arthur comes up with a dazzling solution. Think of a dozen elegant variations of The Red Headed League, but with one or two being much darker in tone. Bryant & May and the Antichrist, for example, is a sombre tale of an elderly woman driven to suicide by the greed of a religious charlatan, while Bryant & May and the Invisible Woman reflects on the devastating effects of clinical depression. The stories are, of course set in London, apart from the delightfully improbable one where Arthur and John solve a murder within the blood-soaked walls of Bran Castle, once the des-res of Vlad Dracul III. Bryant & May and the Consul’s Son revisits Fowler’s fascination with the lost rivers of London, while Janice Longbright and the Best of Friends lets the redoubtable Ms L take centre stage.

The gags are as good as ever. While investigating a crime in a tattoo parlour, Arthur is mistaken for a customer and asked if he has a design in mind:

“I once considered having something on my right bicep but I couldn’t make up my mind between Sir Robert Peel and Dianor Dors.”

When PCU boss Raymond Land is faced with a difficult choice:

“There crept upon his face the anxiety of an Englishman stricken with indecision. It was a look you could see every day in Pret A Manger when middle managers struggled to choose sandwich fillings.”

Idon’t know Christopher Fowler personally, but I infer from his social media presence that he is a thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan chap and, with his spending his time between homes in Barcelona and King’s Cross, he could never be described as a Little Englander. How wonderful, then, that he is the most quintessentially English writer of our time. His Bryant & May stories draw in magical threads from English culture. There is the humour, which recalls George and Weedon Grossmith, WS Gilbert, and the various ‘Beachcombers’ down the years, particularly DB Wyndham Lewis and JB Morton. Fowler’s eagle eye for the evocative power of mundane domestic ephemera mirrors that of John Betjeman, while his fascination with the magnetic pull of the layers of history beneath London’s streets channels Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair.

This collection of short stories is a bar counter full of delicious Tapas rather than the sumptuous four course meal of a full novel, but the appetisers do what they are meant to do – stimulate the palate and make us hungry for more. England’s Finest is published by Doubleday and is out on 31st October.

For more reflections on Bryant & May – and the genius of their creator – click the image below.

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THE MAN ON THE STREET . . . Between the covers

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J blue greenimmy Mullen has been round the block. In the Falklands War his ship takes a direct hit from an Argentine fighter bomber and he watches his mates consumed by the ensuing fireball. Back home recuperating, with a pittance of a pension, he stacks supermarket shelves, battles with his nightmares and presides over the slow erosion of his marriage as drink becomes his only solace. Walking home one night from the boozer, he intervenes to prevent a girl being slapped around by her boyfriend. All very gallant, but the result is the boyfriend (an off-duty copper) lying insensible on the pavement in an expanding pool of blood.

TMOTSAfter the inevitable prison sentence Jimmy is now out on early release, but homeless, his ex-wife now remarried, and his daughter a complete stranger to him. Home is anywhere he can kip out of the rain. His social circle? A few fellow vagrants, raddled by drink, mental instability, drugs – or a toxic combination of all three. Their home-from-home is a charity called The Pit Stop where volunteers provide, food, showers and clothing.

One night as Jimmy lies under the stars on the banks of Newcastle’s River Tyne, voices intrude on his uneasy dreams. These are not the screaming ghosts of his former shipmates, but real human voices, here and now. And they are arguing. Two men, becoming increasingly agitated. Jimmy rolls over in his sleeping bag and takes a look. One man, tall, bulky, looks a bit like a bricklayer. The other fellow, slightly built, long hair, carrying a man-bag, looks a bit like a social worker. “Not my fight” thinks Jimmy. He learned that lesson years ago on his fatal walk home from the pub. As he drifts back into fitful sleep, he hears what he thinks is a splash, but the cocoon of his sleeping bag enfolds him. The words “not my fight” murmur in his ear.

S blue greenome time later Jimmy sees a newspaper article featuring a young woman appealing for news about her missing father. The picture she is holding is of a man Jimmy thinks he recognises. It is the smaller man from the argumentative pair who disturbed his sleep a few weeks since. Or is it? With the help of a couple of his more social-media-savvy pals from The Pit Stop, Jimmy contacts the woman – Carrie Carpenter – and they are drawn into a mystery involving police (both complacent and corrupt), environmental activists, crooked businessmen and – as we learn near the end of the book – grim sexual deviancy.

This is a well written and convincing thriller with sensitive eyes and ears for the plight of ex-servicemen who, like Rudyard Kipling’s Tommy are only accepted by society when there is rough work to be done.

Trevor WoodA blue greenuthor Trevor Wood (right) has lived in Newcastle for 25 years and considers himself an adopted Geordie, though he says that he still can’t speak the language. Despite this, his phonetic version of the unique Geordie accent is good. Normally, I shy away from books where writers try too hard to convey accents in dialogue, but I think Trevor Wood does rather well here. Perhaps this is a result of my addiction to my box set of When The Boat Comes In.

The Man on the Street, Trevor’s debut novel, will be published by Quercus as a Kindle on 31st October, and as a hardback in Spring 2020.

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SIGHT UNSEEN . . . Between the covers

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E bluenora Andresson is a distinguished English actress. Perhaps slightly past her youthful allure, she remains a beauty who can pick and choose her projects, and her films are highly thought of. She has three problems clouding her horizon. The first is, as they say, a bastard. She has a brain tumour. It has been treated but she is only too aware that she may have won a battle, but not the war. Problems two and three are related – literally. She is separated from her Swedish husband, but they have a son – a young man called Malo – who is something of a wrong ‘un. The third problem relates to the words “they have a son”. Fact is, she does – her husband doesn’t. Malo’s father is actually a millionaire businessman named Hayden Prentice, and Malo was conceived during a drunken one-nighter just before Enora’s wedding. So why is Harold a problem? Although he is now an honest man, with legitimate investments and business interests, he made his initial fortune as a drug baron.

Although Enora and Prentice (known hereafter as ‘H’) are now reunited after a fashion, the relationship does not extend to the bedroom, and Enora’s current interest is Pavel, an enigmatic scriptwriter. Pavel’s Eastern European allure is rather manufactured, however, as his real name is the more prosaic Paul. What he says about the art of story-telling, however, could equally apply to Graham Hurley’s own magic wand:

“The best stories detach you from real life. You float away down the river of fiction, lie back and enjoy he view. The storyteller’s challenge is to cast a spell, and the longer that spell lasts, the better.”

T bluehe main plot of Sight Unseen hinges around the kidnapping of Malo’s Colombian girlfriend Clemmie. When a ransom demand of a million dollars is received her father, who, like many rich men from that benighted republic, has kidnap insurance, simply hands the case over to the experts. H, however, has other ideas, and decides to do things his way.

SUHayden Prentice is a brilliant creation and is, in many ways, at the centre of the book, as he was when we first met Enora in Curtain Call. Formerly known as Saucy from his initials, he is hewn from the same rich vein of villainy that produced the elemental force that was Bazza McKenzie in Graham Hurley’s brilliant Joe Faraday novels. H is blunt, foul-mouthed but very, very shrewd. Hurley will not be at all perturbed were readers to visualise H rather like the formidable Harold Shand, as portrayed unforgettably by the great Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday.

As the ransom deadline passes, with the customary video as proof-of-life, and a hiking up of the cash demand, H is increasingly convinced that Malo is, somehow more involved in the affair than simply being the anxious boyfriend. The insidious and infamous County Lines drug trade raises its ugly head, and H delivers a brief but brilliantly incisive summary of the endgame he sees engulfing the England he once knew:

“You think your own little town is safe? You think those sweet kids of yours won’t ever get in trouble with drugs? Wrong. And you know why? Because something we all took for granted has gone. Families? Mums? Dads? A proper job? Getting up in the morning? Totally bolloxed. No-one has a clue who they are any more, or where they belong, and there isn’t a single politician in the country who can tell them what to do about it.”

H has a country mansion, Flixcombe, not far from the Dorset town of Bridport. Despite its artisan bakeries, galleries and twee delis there is a grim underbelly which involves, inevitably, drugs. A local tells Enora that although the main players are little more than children:

“Nothing frightens these little bastards …. streetwise doesn’t begin to cover it. They think they’re immortal. Remember that.”

T bluehe finale is astonishing – a bravura affair which only a fine writer like Graham Hurley could hope to get away with. No spoilers, but it involves a doomed English explorer and an old ballad which once inspired Bob Dylan. Sight Unseen is published by Severn House and is out now.

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LOVE FROM ANGELA DYSON . . .

A tad early for a Valentine, but hey ho . . . . . . .

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She loves me, she loves me not . . . .

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In the pink . . .

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THE LOVE DETECTIVE: THE NEXT LEVEL  is written by Angela Dyson, published by Matador, and is out now.

THE ROOKS DIE SCREAMING . . . Between the covers

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T redhe dramatic events of The Rooks Die Screaming take place in the spring of 1921 in the Cornish market town of Bodmin. The bare bones of the story are that Detective Inspector Cyril Edwards of Scotland Yard has come to Bodmin to investigate murder and treachery involving a group of spies known as The Four Rooks. This book is a sequel to The Woman With The Red Hair, and to say there is a back-story is something of an understatement. The eponymous young woman is called Morag and, amongst other things, is Edwards’ sister-in-law. Elisha Edwards was one of the millions of unfortunates taken by an agent even deadlier than high explosives and machine gun bullets – Spanish Influenza.

The-Rooks-Die-Screaming smallerMorag is now Lady Frobisher. Her husband Harry, heir to The Fobisher Estate on the outskirts of Bodmin, is blind, victim of a grenade in the Flanders trenches. In the previous novel, Frobisher Hall was the scene of great torment for Morag, as she fell into the clutches of Morgan Treaves, an insane asylum keeper and his evil nurse. Treaves has disappeared after being disfigured with a broken bottle, wielded my Morag in a life or death struggle.

If you are picking up a sense that this novel has something of a Gothick tinge (note the ‘k’) you will not be far wrong. It is high melodrama for much of the way; secret tunnels; a sinister woman in the woods who, guarded by a lumbering giant mute forever silenced by the horrors he witnessed in the war, mixes deadly potions; a cottage where a sensitive soul can still hear the ghostly creaking of the former occupant’s body swinging from her suicide beam; a woman who, in falling prey to her own desires, has two terrible deaths forever on her conscience.

Clive-TuckettThat said, The Rooks Die Screaming is inspired escapist reading. It would be unfair to say that Tuckett (right) writes in an anachronistic style. This is much, much better than pastiche, even though there are elements of Conan Doyle, the Golden Age, John Buchan and even touches of Sapper and MR James. So, eventually, to the plot, but we need to know a little more about Cyril Edwards. Like many a fictional detective inspector he is his own man. In another nice cultural reference Tuckett adds a touch of Charters and Caldicott as Edwards explains to the bumptious Standish, a mysterious officer from Military Intelligence;

“‘I love cricket …. When I’m not turning down invitations to join dubious organisations, and thumping arrogant members of the royal family, I love nothing more than to relax at Lord’s and watch a game of cricket.’

Edwards stretched and picked up his Fedora hat, thinking of getting up and walking out of the room.

” I’m hoping to see the Second Test at Lord’s next month against Australia.”‘

S redtandish orders Edwards to investigate the possibility that Harry Frobisher is one of the Rooks, but one who has betrayed his country. Arriving in Bodmin his first task is to explain to the local police how a corpse found on a train is that of a notorious London contract killer. Tuckett’s Bodmin is full of stock characters, including a stolid police sergeant, an apparently tremulous clergyman and a punctilious but respected solicitor who is privy to all the secrets of the local gentry, but is oh, so discreet. To add to the fun, Frobisher Hall also has its requisite roll call of faithful retainers.

The secret of The Four Rooks is eventually revealed, but not before the author throws a few red herrings onto the table. I could probably have done without the finer details of Lady Morag’s marriage bed, and some tighter proof-reading coupled with a more enticing cover would have done wonders for the book. That said, I enjoyed every page and I hope Clive Tuckett has another Inspector Edwards case up his sleeve, especially if it involves the redoubtable Morag Frobisher.

The Rooks Die Screaming is published by The Book Guild and is available now.

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COME BACK FOR ME . . . Between the covers

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CBFMOn a tiny island off the Dorset coast of southern England, a little girl lives a dream childhood. Loving parents, the beauty of the sea and the sky, and the cloudless blue optimism of the young. But then, one terrible night, Stella Harvey’s idyll is shattered. On a September evening, with a violent storm lashing the tiny harbour of Evergreen Island, David Harvey ushers his family on board the ferry he runs for a living, and takes them away to the mainland. For ever.

“At eleven, I wasn’t prepared to accept our parents’ hurried reasons for leaving the island. I couldn’t believe that this was for good and I couldn’t understand one bit why they were dragging us away in the middle of a storm. ‘Will we come back?’ I whispered to my sister? Bonnie’s hand shook as it reached for mine under my mac. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t believe we ever will.’”

Years have flown by. Stella is now a consulting psychotherapist. Sister Bonnie is married with children. Their mother, Maria, is long dead, killed in a road accident. Father David, having left Maria for another woman, is now in the throes of dementia.

Stella’s equanimity is cruelly disturbed when she sees a TV news report that human remains have been discovered on Evergreen, but worse is to follow. The body a of a woman, long dead, has been found very close to her old home, and police have not ruled out foul play. Despite Bonnie’s advice to leave well alone, Stella is hypnotically drawn to unfolding events, and decides to return to her old home.

Inevitably, as night follows day, Stella’s arrival on Evergreen is not a joyful homecoming, and several skeletons come dancing and rattling their bones out of the cupboard to which time has consigned them. Firstly, Stella learns the tragic reason why her best friend and sworn blood-sister never replied to any of the letters she sent when the Harvey family began their new life on the mainland. Then, with the cruel perceptiveness of adulthood stripping away the illusions of youth, Stella looks on with horror as, first, the grisly remains are identified and personalised and then, second, questions from the past, smothered by time for so long, leap out into the present and demand answers.

HPWhen Stella’s long-since-estranged brother, Danny, is drawn into what has become a murder investigation, the novel takes a seriously dark turn as it examines the nature of truth, loyalty, memory and love itself. Heidi Perks (right) has written a novel which will entrance readers who like a good psychological thriller, and she leaves us with a sense of sadness, certainly, but also an affirmation that, in the words of St Paul:

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

As timeless as his remarks are, we should not let St Paul have the last word. Stella Harvey says:

“Yes, I decide, I can live with a lie, because the alternative is unbearable…And I’ll live with it hanging over me forever, because that’s the trouble with secrets. They never go away.”

Come Back For Me will be published by Cornerstone Digital as a Kindle on 1st June, and in hardback, by Century, on 11th July.

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THE POSTMAN DELIVERS . . . an intriguing puzzle.

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To adapt, abuse and assault the beautiful words of Elizabeth Browning, née Barrett:

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The creative folk at Penguin Random House are certainly pushing the boat out in support of Gone, a new psychological thriller and the debut novel by former police psychologist Leona Deakin.

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This intriguing pack has just arrived, and although the digital version of Gone will not be available until August, and the print version way after that in October, it’s never to early to set people’s curiosity on fire. There’s clearly some kind of mystery behind the mystery, so here are the clues.

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There will be more to come, no doubt, on this puzzle. Let’s see if we can work out exactly what is going on!

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