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Jo Spain

SIX WICKED REASONS . . . Between the covers

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SCelticartre insisted that the celebrated line from his 1944 play Huis Clos (No Exit), “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” was forever misinterpreted, but the idea that hell is other people has stuck, despite the protestations of the Great Existentialist. Some, like Jo Spain in her latest novel Six Wicked Reasons, would suggest – to mix and match poets – that Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell could be condensed into an overpowering tenth – Family.

SWRThe Lattimer family, patriarch Frazer, sons James, Adam and Ryan, daughters Ellen, Kate and Clíodhna – Clio – have assembled at the family home in south east Ireland overlooking the waters of Spanish Cove in the Irish Sea, so called because of its earliest recorded casualties – sailors from a Spanish galleon blown adrift from the Armada and then shattered on the hidden rocks.

Something has gone badly wrong. With the family gathered aboard a luxury yacht moored just off-shore, and apparently partying, Frazer Lattimer has been hauled from the water, as dead as any Spanish sailor, with a mortal wound to his head. Now his children are huddled on shore, wrapped in space blankets, being interrogated by a member of the local Garda Síochána. And, of course, one of them must be the killer. Mustn’t they?

RCeltic lettereaders new to Jo Spain’s novels will welcome the apparently straightforward back-stories of Frazer Lattimer’s children, and their motives for wanting him dead. Those who know that the author is The Mistress of Misdirection will suspect, correctly, that this is only the start. But, for the record, I give you the Lattimer children. James is a big media name, with TV screenwriting and production credits on his CV. Lives in Dublin, of course with ex-model wife and step daughter. Adam – now there’s a tale. He now lives abroad, making money for fun, but he disappeared ten years earlier, broke the heart of his late mother Kathleen, and has now re-appeared, equally mysteriously, and it is his return ‘from the dead’ which has prompted the reunion. Ryan, alas poor Ryan. Drug addicted as a teenager, he has somehow survived industrial intakes of pharmaceuticals, and now lives in Italy, just about getting by as an odd-job man.

ECeltic letterllen Lattimer is the female equivalent of the Prodigal Son’s brother. Remember, the bloke who stayed at home while his brother was out on the town, giving it all away? Ellen has stayed at home, cleaning, cooking, dusting – and paying for the upkeep of the house. She is prim, joyless, and what Private Eye used to call “tight-lipped and ashen-faced.” Kate, on the other hand, has spread her wings and learned to fly. Having overcome a teenage weight problem which caused her to be known locally as King Kong, she is now svelte, lean and lovely. Also, married to a filthy rich Chinese businessman with a chain of luxury hotels. Clio, though has been in the wars. Summoned from a dingy bedsit in downtown New York to attend the family gathering, she is the most volatile of the children, the antithesis of the line from the old hymn which described Our Lord as “slow to chide and swift to bless.”

You could write what Jo Spain doesn’t know about plotting on the back of a postage stamp and still have room to inscribe the Lord’s Prayer, but she also has an ear for dialogue that is purely musical in its accuracy. We have the six Lattimer siblings, their father in flashback, plus his recently acquired Polish fiancée; to complete the line-up add Rob, an intriguing local policeman, and Danny, the grizzled mariner whose platonic love for Kathleen Lattimer broke his heart and yet made it sing. Ten totally different people, yet when each of them speaks, they are totally credible down to every word, every syllable and every inflection.

ACeltic letters an amateur wordsmith I can only guess at Jo Spain’s writing technique; her prose is so assured, so fluent and has that sense of flair that cannot, surely, be the result only of endless hours of editing. No matter how long you spend polishing a piece of coal, you will never transform it into a gem stone. Six Wicked Reasons is a diamond, multi-faceted and reflecting both the light and the darkness of the human soul. It is published by Quercus and is out on 16th January.

For more reviews of Jo Spain’s novels click the image below

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2019 . . . Best police procedural

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While police procedurals, at least in recent years, don’t tend to attract as much publicity as, say, domestic noir (or books with ’Girl’ in the title) they are the solid and dependable backbone of crime fiction. A true cynic might say that the police procedural scene is a roomfull of Detective Inspectors moaning about their desk-bound box-ticking superior officers, but in the hands of writers who are prepared to take a few risks and move away from the norm, a good police novel is hard to beat.

tkim-coverThere are some very special Irish crime writers these days. Some mine the uniquely bitter and bleak seam of Belfast, with its raw and recent memories, while further south the city of Dublin, where “the girls are so pretty”, has its fair share of malcontents and evil doers. Olivia Kiernan and her Chief Superintendent Frankie Sheehan were new to me, but The Killer In Me was a beguiling read. I called it “dark, complex, but full of compassion.” and the story of Sheehan’s search for a killer, while trying to decide if a newly released killer is a wrongly convicted media cause célèbre or a murderous con artist, is beautifully told.

tbwfStaying in Ireland, it has to be said that Jo Spain is ridiculously talented. She has created a bankable stock character in the affable Dublin copper Tom Reynolds, but this has not stopped her from writing such brilliant stand-alones as The Confession. In reviewing her books I have used adjectives like ‘bravura’, ‘intense’, ‘breathtaking’ and ‘mesmerising’, so will gather that I am a fan. It was good to welcome back Tom Reynolds this year in The Boy Who Fell. On one level this is a firecracker of a whodunnit, and Spain’s ability to misdirect the reader and lead us – Pied Piper-like – in the wrong direction, is proudly displayed. On a more reflective level her observations on moneyed Dublin society are sharp and salutary, as Reynolds tries to discover why a teenager died while partying with his privileged and privately educated friends.

CATGVulnerability as a character trait is perhaps more common in British fictional coppers that their American counterparts, and few fit that bill quite like James Oswald’s Edinburgh detective Tony McLean. Cold As The Grave is his ninth outing, and his quest for the truth behind a series of corpses found in strange locations in the old city brings the frayed edges of his character into focus. He has always had an awareness of the fact that there are “more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Oswald never goes full-on supernatural, but McLean is ever more aware that the solution to the Edinburgh deaths may lie beyond the dry pages of the Police Scotland training manual.

SleepwalkerIn The Sleepwalker, Joseph Knox reintroduced us to his troubled Manchester Detective Constable, Aidan Waits, who we first met in Sirens (2017) and The Smiling Man (2018). To say that Waits’s Manchester is dystopian is rather like saying that there can be a certain frisson between supporters of City and United. In The Sleepwalker it rarely seems to be daylight as the pallid and pinched faces of drug abusers and petty crimInals are caught in the flickering neon lights of the late night clubs and drinking dens. Waits and his loathsome immediate superior Sergeant Sutcliffe have been tasked with waiting at the bedside of a dying serial killer, in the hope that his final breath will reveal the burial place of one of his victims. Inevitably, everything goes bloodily wrong, and when the dust settles, and the final autopsy is done, Knox asks us – perhaps, maybe, possibly – to bid Waits a fond farewell.

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Click this link for a full review of Their Little Secret.

THE BOY WHO FELL . . . Between the covers

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TBWFThis is a chillingly clever whodunnit shot through with a caustic examination of life among the moneyed classes of contemporary Ireland, particularly Dublin’s nouveau riche and their over-indulged teenage children. Fans of Jo Spain’s DI Tom Reynolds will be overjoyed to see him return for his fifth case, and those who know the author only through her spellbinding standalone novels such as The Confession and Dirty Little Secrets should make up for lost time immediately!

Glenmore House has a dark reputation. A few years ago, a husband killed his wife and child with a kitchen knife before hanging himself. Since that trauma, the house has stood empty, slowly being reclaimed by nature. Unholy. Unvisited. Unloved. Except by a little clique of privately educated teenagers who use the place to smoke a little dope and drink a little alcohol. Well, OK, rather too much of both, but our story begins, like many another good yarn on One Dark Night ….

This particular dark night ends in tragedy, as after he and his friends indulge in some horseplay with an ouija board, young Luke Connolly plunges to his death from an upstairs window. The youngsters involved in the escapade are not, however, from some run down social housing estate, the victims of neglect, poor schooling and brutalised by deprivation. No, Luke, Charlotte, Hazel, Brian, Jacob and Dylan are all students at the prestigious and very expensive Little Leaf College and their parents, while possibly having more money than sense, are pillars of the community. But. And there is a rather large but in the person of Daniel Konaté Jones. Daniel is mixed race, has a ‘job’ as a DJ, and is tolerated by the group as something rather exotic, like a strange tropical orchid springing up in the herbaceous border . The police investigating the death are quick to arrest Daniel, and their case against him is sewn up with speed and, to mix metaphors, seen as tighter than a camel’s arse in a sandstorm.

Daniel is related to one of Tom Reynolds’ most respected officers, and when she asks him to take a look at the case, he reluctantly agrees. There are just one or two complications, though. First, Daniel is refusing to say anything – not a word – to investigating officers or his lawyer. Then, Reynolds becomes aware that Daniel is gay, and that, despite protestations from parents and friends, it appears that Danny and Luke were “an item.” Thirdly, the grief of Luke’s parents at his death has to run alongside the tragic demise of Luke’s twin brother Ethan, who is near death in a local hospice.

JSJo Spain is the literary Diva of Deviousness, and while we learn early in the piece that Glenmore House has a bloody history, she waits for some while before reconnecting the earlier slaughter with the death of Luke Connolly. When she does – and Reynolds realises the connection a paragraph or three before we do – the investigation takes on a whole new slant.

It should be a serious criminal offence for someone to write with the fluency, panache and skill at misdirection as Jo Spain, but while she remains a free woman, enjoy The Boy Who Fell. You will find beautiful prose, conundrums-a-plenty and enough of the dark side to satisfy any fan of Noir fiction. Regarding her portraits of people, I can only suggest that if Rembrandt had laid down his brushes and taken up the pen, he would be pushed to make his subjects as alive – with all their flaws – as she does. The Boy Who Fell is published by Quercus and will be available on 27th June.

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ON MY SHELF . . . June 2019

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A MISCHIEVOUS BOOK PERSON on Twitter last week sought suggestions on trigger words in CriFi book titles which induce an automatic sinking feeling in the prospective reader. I weighed in with  ‘Papers‘, ‘Code‘, ‘Conspiracy‘, ‘Legacy‘, ‘Ultimatum‘ and, worst of all, the one which will have me reaching for the nearest box set of DVDs or even checking out the backlog of Peppa Pig episodes I record for my granddaughter, the dreaded four-letter word ‘Girl‘. Happily, those fateful words are missing from a bumper crop of new books on my shelf.

KEEP YOU CLOSE by Karen Cleveland

Keep You CloseA writer who spent years working for the CIA and the FBI – as well as graduating from Trinity College Dublin and Harvard – is going to be an author to be reckoned with. Karen Cleveland’s 2018 best-seller Need To Know hit all the right buttons for readers who like psychological anxiety, tension and that delicious schadenfreude  that washes over us when we watch someone’s domestic bliss unravel. Cleveland taps into her FBI background with her latest thriller, as FBI analyst Steph discovers something in her teenage son’s bedroom which turns her world on its head. This is out in Kindle on 13th June, in hardback on 27th of the month, and is published by Bantam Press.

 

CLEAR MY NAME by Paula Daly

Cover037Carrie Kamara languishes in prison, sent down after an open-and-shut investigation and trial where she was convicted of murdering her husband’s mistress in a cold blooded attack fueled by humiliation and jealousy. The evidence? DNA. Conclusive, isn’t it? Or is it? Tess Gilroy is a tireless campaigner for Innocence UK, a charity which exists to overturn miscarriages of justice. When she takes on Carrie’s case she is initially swept along by her burning desire to establish the truth, but as she mines down into the detail of the case, she realises, to her horror, that she will be forced to confront some very uncomfortable issues of her own if she is to secure Carrie’s freedom. Again, this is from Bantam Press but you will have to wait until 8th August to get your hands on a copy.

ONE WAY OUT by AA Dhand

One Way OutThe issue of Muslims in Britain, and the extent to which they do – or don’t – integrate with mainstream non Islamic communities is a source of continuous political and social media debate where, as a rule, more heat than light is generated. Dhand has established his Bradford-based copper D.I. Harry Virdee with three previous novels, Streets of Darkness (2016), Girl Zero (2017) and City of Sinners (2018). Now, Virdee becomes personally involves in a campaign by an extreme right wing group who are targeting Muslims in the Yorkshire city of Bradford. The Patriots have one specified target, the leaders of a group of Islamic extremists known as Almukhtaroon. Virdee has to make decisions which threaten not only his own life, but the lives of his family – and the future well-being of thousands of fellow Bradford citizens. I promise I am not it the pay of Bantam Press, but this is one of theirs, too, and it will be available from 27th June.

J SS BACH by Martin Goodman

JSSBThe author is a distinguished British academic who has written extensively on Roman and Jewish history. There are no Romans in his latest book – a work of fiction – but the fate of European Jews in the late 1930s is examined here in painful detail. Otto Schalmik and his family are dragged from their Vienna home and sent first to Dachau, and then to Birkenau. Due to his consummate skill as a cellist, and the intense love of Bach displayed by the camp commandant and his wife, Otto survives. Years later, when he is an internationally revered artist, his world and that of the commandant’s wife and granddaughter collide, with unexpected personal consequences. Published by Wrecking Ball Press, Martin Goodman’s novel is available now.

A KILLING SIN by KH Irvine

AKSIrvine’s novel, like One Way Out, visits the fraught and potentially explosive world of relations between British Muslims and their host country. Islam. Is it a religion? Certainly. Is it a race? Well. clearly not, as the faith bestrides many nationalities. Is Islam immune from criticism? Here lies the rub, explored in painful detail in this startling debut from an author who grew up in Scotland and now lives near London. The book was her 50th birthday gift to herself, believing you are never too old to try something new. Her day job has taken her to board rooms, universities and governments all over the world and has included up close and personal access to special forces. In A Killing Sin, three women from across the religious, political and racial divide in modern Britain find that their lives mesh together against the backdrop of a national political and social emergency. A Killing Sin will be published by Urbane Publications on 4th July.

THE BOY WHO FELL by Jo Spain

TBWFJo Spain has a dazzling ability to write stand-alone crime novels which hit the spot every time, but she is also canny enough to know that most crime readers like a good series, and hers is right at the top of the  ‘unmissable’ list of modern police procedurals. In his latest case, Dublin copper Tom Reynolds has just been promoted, but he is asked to take an interest in an uncomfortable case which is well below his new pay grade. A teenager appears to have been pushed to his death from the window of an abandoned house. The case has extra spice because the house was the scene of a savage domestic murder years earlier and the dead boy is judged by the pathologist to have been the victim of a homosexual rape shortly before his death. Reynolds takes on the case as a favour to a fellow Garda Síochána officer who is related to the mixed race teenager suspected of the rape and murder. Quercus will be publishing this latest episode in the casebook of Tom Reynolds on 27th June. For more on Jo Spain and to discover why I am a huge fan of her writing, click this link.

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DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS . . . Between the covers

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Jo Spain’s latest stand-alone crime novel begins with a death which is as sudden as it is violent. The victim of this savagery is only a bluebottle fly, slain by a passing bird, but the important part is where the fly has been before it became a Blackbird’s breakfast. Like countless thousands of its fellow Calliphora Vomitoria it has been innocently feasting and laying its eggs on a corpse. A very human corpse. The mortal remains (and not much does) of Olive Collins has been gently liquefying inside her cottage for months. Her neighbours in the exclusive gated hamlet of Withered Vale have been going about their business oblivious to Olive’s fate.

DLS coverWithered Vale? Hardly your standard estate agent euphemism. Honeysuckle Meadows, Skylark Leys, Virginia Reach, Lakeside View, maybe, but Withered Vale? Years ago, the man who farmed the fields now built over was over-zealous with his pesticide, and nothing grew ever again. The enterprising developer, alert to a possible marketing triumph, chose to retain the local name, thinking that it had a certain ironic snap to it which might appeal to wealthy young professionals. He was right. No. 4 The Vale – Olive’s cottage – dates from before the development, however, and is dwarfed by the arrivistes.

Once Olive’s demise is discovered, the police descend. Frank Brazil, desperate for retirement and a quiet life, has said his prayers hoping that it is a suicide. His young partner Emma Child gleefully discovers taped up ventilation outlets and a boiler that has been fatally tinkered with, thus suggesting something darker, however, and Spain sets to work describing the other residents of the Vale as, one by one, they all become suspects – and what a brilliantly wicked job she makes of it.

There’s poor porn-addicted George Richmond, set up in his designer home, No. 1, by his wealthy showbiz father, and No. 7 houses debonair ladies’ man Ron Ryan with his sunbed tan and simple philosophy of ‘get it while – and when – you can’. At No. 5 live the Hennessys, Matt, Chrissy and their rather odd son Cam. Spain has shown flashes of dark humour in her previous novels, but she lets her considerable talent for satire off the leash when she lays into David and Lily Solanke, in their self-righteous vegetarian paradise within the walls of No.2. David is so exasperatingly ‘woke’ that Lily, pregnant with the twins, curses his kindness:

“Soon, David was playing music to her bump and lying with his head in her lap so her could hear the twins gurgling in the amniotic fluid. He treated her belly with reverence, gentle and worshipping. She felt like a Faberg
é egg. A Fabergé egg that wanted her husband to do her doggy-style because she was so damned horny.”

We meet Ed and Amelia Miller
from No. 6 while they are soaking up the sun in their Andalusian apartment, but their reaction when they hear of Olive’s death suggests that her passing lifts a shadow that has been cast over their lives. No. 3 is home to Alison and Holly Daly, single mum and teenage daughter and, like the Millers, neither of them sheds anything resembling a tear.

JSThus Spain sets up a writhing nest of vipers, every one of whom has a very good reason for wanting Olive Collins dead and out of its life. The narrative darts back and forth between the homes as we learn the hopes, sins and insecurities of the residents, each with a flimsy alibi and united by a mixture of fear and loathing for the apparently mild-mannered resident of No. 4 The Vale. As we scratch our heads wondering whodunnit, could we be looking at some kind of collective guilt, à la An Inspector Calls? The solution, when it comes, is deliciously perverse and very satisfying. Jo Spain (right) has a talent to enthrall, and in an afterword to this book she writes of her early love of reading:

“My heart was won by the written word. It’s been a lifelong affair. If I can give anybody the gift of a good story, a gift I still treasure when I cuddle up in the chair with a book at night, then my job is done.”

Her job is indeed done, and done with a sense of élan and literary devilment unmatched by anyone currently writing crime fiction. Dirty Little Secrets is published by Quercus and will be available on 7th February.

Click the links below to read reviews of earlier novels by Jo Spain.

The Darkest Place

The Confession

Sleeping Beauties

Beneath The Surface

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2018 . . . (6) Best novel

The Confession is my Best Novel of the year 2018, and it left the competition for dead. Here’s why I feel that way:
 https://fullybooked2017.com/2018/01/03/the-confession-between-the-covers/

 

 

BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2018 . . . (4) Best police procedural

The Fully Booked review of Mark Billingham’s The Killing Habit is just a click away:
https://fullybooked2017.com/2018/05/22/the-killing-habit-between-the-covers/

THE DARKEST PLACE … Between the covers

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There can be few tropes – either using visual imagery or words – to match the allure of an disused and desolate lunatic asylum. The more Victorian and ‘Gothick’ the building is, the more it is likely to attract both those brave but foolhardy folk known as Urban Explorers – and writers of atmospheric thrillers. Place the building on a desolate island off the south western coast of Ireland and we have a dream – or nightmare – location for a murder mystery. Then let the tale be told by one of our finest modern writers of crime fiction and, as Wilkins Micawber once said, “Result, happiness.” Happiness at least for those of us who love a good read, but there is less joy for the characters in Jo Spain’s latest novel, The Darkest Place.

TDP coverDublin copper DI Tom Reynolds is summoned from the dubious delights of his family Christmas to solve a murder. Readers of the previous three Tom Reynolds books might think there is little remarkable about that, but this time the corpse has been in the ground for rather longer than usual. Forty years, in fact. On the island of Oileán na Caillte, the pathologists have been disinterring corpses from a mass grave of the unfortunates who passed away as patients of the long-defunct psychiatric institution, St Christina’s. Those involved in the grim task discover nothing illegal, as all the residents of the burial pit were laid to rest in body bags, tagged and entered onto the hospital records. With one exception. That exception is the corpse of one of St Christina’s medical staff Dr Conrad Howe, who mysteriously disappeared forty Christmases ago. No body bag or tag for Dr Howe, but a rather surreptitious last resting place wedged between two other corpses.

For Howe’s widow Miriam the discovery comes as a shock but a release of sorts. For all the Christmases in between she has, like a latter day Mrs Hailsham, laid out the seasonal trappings in the same way each year, half hoping that her husband would return. Her children, now grown up, have humoured her in this ritual up to a point, as has a doctor colleague of her husband’s, Andrew Collins, who retains his connection to Oileán na Caillte. The fact that Collins has been hopelessly in love with Miriam all this time is not lost on Reynolds as he tries to discover who killed Howe with – as tests on his bones reveal – a length of electrical flex which left copper traces on his thoracic vertebrae.

Reynolds is no-one’s fool. As he pores through the almost indecipherable scrawl of Howe’s diary (we share that task with him, but minus the scrawl) he realises that the truth about who killed the idealistic physician involves not only the dead of Oileán na Caillte, but those who are still very much alive. One of the most telling lines in the diary says:

“It is though we are sharing this island with the devil.”

JSOther than that dark angel, the cast of suspects includes another former physician, now himself just days away from death, and others whose culpability in the inhuman treatment of St Christina’s patients has left psychological scars, some of which have become dangerously infected. Of course, this being, among other things, a brilliant whodunnit, Jo Spain (right) allows Tom Reynolds – and us readers – to make one major assumption. She then takes great pleasure, the deviously scheming soul that she is, in waiting until the final few pages before turning that assumption not so much on its head as making it do a bloody great cartwheel.

Jo Spain is a brilliant writer. It really is as simple as that. She takes the humble police procedural and not only breathes new life into it, but makes it dance and jitterbug like a flapper on cocaine. Not content with that, she shifts a heavy old stone covering some of the less palatable aspects of her country’s history, and lets us gaze squeamishly at some of the nasty things that click and scuttle about beneath, disturbed by exposure to the light.

The previous Tom Reynolds novel was Sleeping Beauties, and you can check that out by clicking the blue link. Do the same to see the review of her brilliant standalone novel The Confession. The Darkest Place is published by Quercus and will be available on 20th September.

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NO JANUARY BLUES FOR SPAIN!

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DUBLIN AUTHOR JO SPAIN AND HER AGENT NICOLA BARR had very reason to be cheerful last Thursday evening, in the atmospheric surroundings of The Harrow, just off London’s Fleet Street. Spain’s breakaway psychological thriller, The Confession, has hit the ground running and is already heading the best-seller charts in Ireland.

The Confession moves away from the police procedural world inhabited by Spain’s Dublin copper Tom Reynolds, and into a different territory altogether. The Confession is a daring and bravura performance by one of our finest writers. We know within the first few pages who did it (the bludgeoning to death of a disgraced investment manager) but Spain spins a dazzling and complex web over the next 380 pages or so, as we try to work out why?

Follow the links below to read the Fully Booked take on The Confession, and also two cases for DI Tom Reynolds.

The Confession

Sleeping Beauties

Beneath The Surface

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