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Police Procedural

WHAT WILL BURN . . . Between the covers

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As the title suggests, What Will Burn is all about fire. It begins with an old woman, badly beaten and then set alight. There are passages which hark back to the late sixteenth century, and describe the dreadful end of women who were accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake. A man apparently spontaneously combusts as he sits in his basement flat. It ends with a grim parallel to those scenes when one of the book’s main characters, suffers a similar fate in a grim parody of those historical executions.

So, what has all this to do with James Oswald’s Edinburgh copper
, Detective Chief Inspector Tony McLean? Or, to be more accurate, Detective Inspector McLean, as he returns to duty busted down a rank after a lengthy investigation into misconduct.

His ‘welcome back Tony” case is that of the agonising death of Cecily Slater, an elderly member of an aristocratic family, who has lived alone in a crumbling cottage in the woods above Edinburgh. Her charred remains have gone unnoticed for some time, until an estate worker who runs the odd errand for the old woman makes a grisly discovery.

McLean also becomes involved with a controversial campaign called Dad’s Army. They are not the avuncular dodderers from Walmington-on-Sea, but a group of embittered men who, for one reason or another, have been denied access to their children. They are led – and empowered – by a lawyer called Tommy Fielding, a man who who has a seemingly pathological hatred of women, and is undeterred by the fact that many of his clients have been separated from their children due to allegations of serious sexual abuse.

All good police procedural series
need a repertory company of regular characters, and the Tony McLean books are no exception. There’s Grumpy Bob, guardian of the cold case records down in the basement, Detective Constable Janie Harrison – now Acting Detective Sergeant Harrison, the lugubrious Detective Constable ‘Lofty’ Blane. McLean himself is a fascinating character. Thanks to a legacy, he has the luxury of being financially independent of his job, but loves the work. He also has the mixed blessing of being someone who is sensitive to things paranormal, and beyond the ken of the Police Scotland operational handbook. Away from the station, there is the strange character of Madame Rose, a transexual psychic who can always be relied upon to provide a sense of things “not dreamt of in our philosophy”.Last but not least, there is Mrs McCutcheon’s cat. We never see the owner, but the moggie is a permanent resident in McLean’s house.

There is a new member of the cast
in this novel, in the person of Chief Superintendent Gail Elmwood, freshly signed from the Metropolitan Police to head up Tony’s team. Let’s just say that she is not your conventional senior police officer.

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As the reviewers’ cliché has it, the body count gets higher. Readers expecting a conventional solution to the criminal activity in What Will Burn will search in vain. James Oswald takes this book to a new level of dark imaginings, intrigue, human venality and sinister happenings which, if they don’t scare you, it perhaps means that you are in a persistent vegetative state. What Will Burn is published by Wildfire, and is out today, 18th February.

I am a confirmed and long-standing fan of the Tony McLean series. To read reviews of earlier novels, click here.

END OF THE LINE . . . Between the covers

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This is the fourth in Robert Scragg’s popular police procedural series featuring London DI Jake Porter and his trusty Sergeant, Nick Styles. The story so far: Porter still grieves for his wife Holly, killed in a hit-and-run incident a few years earlier. The driver remains unidentified, and it preys upon Porter’s mind. He has cautiously begun a new relationship with fellow cop Evie Simmons. Styles is married, with a young child, and is intensely loyal to his boss.

81TTdj6ywMLThe book starts in gory style. Ross Henderson, a young left wing activist, has a YouTube channel on which he posts regular videos denouncing his bête noire, a movement called the English Welfare Party. The EWP are right wing Nationalists vehemently opposed to immigration. As Henderson is setting up his latest live video stream from an abandoned magistrates’ court, proceedings are interrupted by a group who appear to be Islamic extremists. Live and on screen, the young man is killed using the jihadists’ favourite method – decapitation. By the time the police arrive,the killers are long gone, but the shocking video has been seen by millions on social media.

At the same time that Porter and Styles are assigned to the case, Porter hears that there is something of a breakthrough in his personal hunt for the person who killed his wife. Fingerprints from the abandoned vehicle that did the damage have finally been matched to that of a minor criminal, Henry Kaumu. All good then, except that Kaumu is lying in an intensive care unit, comatose and swathed in bandages after being battered around the head with a baseball bat, wielded by an angry homeowner whose house Kaumu was trying to burgle. Porter learns that Kaumu is an employee of Jackson Tyler, a notorious London gangster. Because the case is so personal, Porter is forbidden to take any part in it and so he goes ‘rogue’ to try to find the identity of the person who was driving the fatal car. His clashes with Tyler are painful and unproductive, until he receives information from an unlikely source.

ScraggPorter’s four year search for the person who killed his wife finally ends in a violent encounter on a suburban industrial site, and the hunt for Ross Henderson’s killer takes one or two wrong turns, but eventually Porter gets his man. Or does he? There is a clever twist at the end which I didn’t see coming. Robert Scragg clearly has a strong political stance, but that’s fine – it’s his book, and readers can take it or leave it.

I have to be honest and say that I smelled a rat from the word go. Why would Islamists murder a left wing activist who would have held all the ‘correct’ views on such topics as immigration, Palestine and cultural diversity? It takes Porter & Co. rather a long time to realise they are being played, but maybe that’s just me being a curmudgeon. That caveat aside, this is a thoroughly entertaining police procedural from the author (right) with all boxes ticked, including coppers with difficult personal lives, senior officers welded to their desks, genuinely nasty villains, and authentic locations. The room containing fictional Detective Inspectors is a crowded one, but Jake Porter’s elbows are sharp enough to make sure he has room to move.

End of The Line is published by Allison & Busby, and is out now. To find reviews of the three earlier books in the series, click on the image below.

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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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OUT FOR BLOOD . . . Between the covers

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Aberdeen, Scotland.The Granite City. To say that Police Scotland’s DI Eve Hunter has baggage would be something of an understatement. Physically and mentally damaged by a ruinous encounter with a notorious crime family, she is only allowed back to work on the understanding that she undergoes tortuous (for her) therapy sessions with Dr Shetty, the police psychologist. We first met Hunter in Hold Your Tongue, and you can read that review by clicking the link.

OFB 001We start with two corpses. One is an unidentified young woman, strung up by her neck to a tree on a golf course. The other, a young man, is found in more comfortable surroundings – his flat – but he is equally dead. As Hunter’s team begin to investigate the cases it seems that they could not be further apart. The dead man is an old boy of one of the area’s most prestigious independent schools, and has a rich father. The girl, however, is an Eastern European prostitute. Links between the two deaths slowly turn from gossamer to steel. Was one using the other? Is it that simple? Why do the names of powerful local figures crop up over and over again on the peripheries of the case?

In some ways we are on familiar territory here. We have the classic police procedural trope of the tired and overworked detectives trying to keep their family lives on track, while still having to give everything to ‘the job’. We have some coppers who are, if not actually corrupt, downright idle, their only concern being how to protect their pension Somehow, these stresses and strains of police work come over as fresh and as harrowing as if it were the first time we had read them.

This is not the first novel in recent years to highlight the deeply unpleasant trade in human lives carried out by Eastern European criminals. I live in a town where it happens, and nothing Deborah Massen (below) has written here is in any way exaggerated or fanciful. She vividly portrays the brutality of the men – and women – who run the rackets, and the misery of the girls who become enslaved.

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Masson showed in her previous book that she has a talent for having her police characters (and with them, we readers) pursue one line of enquiry, convinced that solution can only lie in that single direction, only for events to take a startling turn in another direction altogether. In proving that we are all wrong, and making the plot twist plausible, she takes a great risk, but I have to say her gamble pays off, and she produces a startling conclusion with the true flourish of a literary magician. Out For Blood is available in Kindle from Transworld Digital now, and will be out in paperback under the Corgi imprint on 10th December.

BAD TIMING . . . Between the covers

IMG_1893-2-2Nick Oldham (left) is a former copper from Lancashire,and his novels featuring Henry Christie have been delighting readers for many years. I believe that Bad Timing is the 27th in a series dating back to A Time For Justice, which came out in 1996.

Here’s a very quick Henry Christie CV ( or resumé for American readers). He worked his way up through the ranks of Lancashire Police, but never wanted the kind of seniority that meant braid on his ceremonial uniform or role where he spent most of his time behind a desk massaging crime figures for the Home Office or, even worse, managing the force’s diversity targets. He has been shot, beaten up, sacked and re-instated, and has seen the very worst of criminal lowlife in England’s north-west. He has now retired and is running a moorland pub, while still mourning the deaths and various departures of women in his life.

Bad TimingBad Timing is a kind of sequel, or perhaps the final chapter of a story which began in the previous novel, Wildfire. If you click the link you can get the background story. In short, a married couple who made a tidy living out of creative accounting – laundering money for some seriously bad gangsters have been murdered in their luxurious converted farmhouse. The problem is that huge sums of money have gone missing, probably sucked into a Bermuda Triangle of dodgy companies, offshore investments and Swiss bank accounts. And now, the bad guys want the money back.

A word to the wise. Don’t be misled into thinking that the partly rural setting of these novels mean that it you will be reading a cosy Heartbeat-style tale of lovable rogues and amiable coppers on push-bikes. Oldham tells it how it actually is, and Christie’s world is one of ruthless criminal families, vicious thugs, appalling council estates with endemic crime, and toxic traveller sites populated with opportunists who are as violent as they are anti-social.

When the body of the daughter of the murdered accountants is found in a remote lake, the police realise that the case is far from closed and there is still a killer out there. Henry Christie is brought back as a consultant, and although he is ‘chaperoned’ by Detective Diane Daniels, it is his nose for danger that pitches them into a head-on collision with a gangland killer who is as black of heart as anyone Christie has encountered in his long career.

Christie is, to put it mildly, getting on a bit. His body is just about up for the demands of pulling pints, concocting exotic designer coffees and serving full English breakfasts at his pub, The Tawny Owl, but now he is out there challenging a man half his age and twice as malevolent.

Bad Timing is as brutal and unflinching a thriller as you will read all year. It is published by Severn House and is out on 30th September.

STILL LIFE . . . Between the covers

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Still Life sees the return of Val McDermid’s DCI Karen Pirie for her sixth case. For readers new to the series, Pirie is tough, intuitive and compassionate – qualities which stand her in good stead as leader of the Historic Crimes Unit. She has her vulnerable side, and it is never more obvious than when she contemplates the emotional scars inflicted by the murder of her former colleague and lover Phil Parhatka. In the previous book, Broken Ground, she met Hamish Mackenzie, a wealthy businessman and gentleman crofter. They are not completely ‘an item’. For Karen, the jury is still out.

McDermid loves nothing better than to juggle plot strands, and here we have two absolute beauties or, should I say, bodies. In the Blue Corner we have the corpse of a male (happily for the police complete with passport in his back pocket) recovered by fisherman tending their lobster pots. In the Red Corner is the desiccated corpse of a woman, discovered in an elderly and tarpaulined camper van, rusting away in a suburban garage.

51UwcxaxExL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The dead man is quickly identified as the brother of a long-disappeared Scottish public figure. Iain Auld, depending on your cultural terms of reference, did either a Reggie Perrin, John Stonehouse or Lord Lucan a decade earlier. He has officially been declared dead, but Pirie’s antennae are set all of a quiver, as her investigations into Auld’s disappearance have been fruitless.

The dead woman? Just as complex and convoluted. She may have been a capriciously talented jewellery designer, neither seen nor heard of for months after a troubled residence in a Highland artists’ commune. Then again, she might be the designer’s lesbian lover, a minor talent in the world of water colour landscapes.

McDermid creates her usual magic in this brilliant police procedural. Yes, all boxes are ticked, including starchy superior police officers, duplicitous figures at the heart of the world of Fine Art, sexual jealousy and crimes passionelle, government corruption and likeable (but slightly gormless) junior coppers. Long time fans of the former director of Raith Rovers FC will know that there is more – so much more. She pulls us into the narrative from page one. We are smitten, hooked, ensnared, trapped in her web – choose your own metaphor

Val McDermid is a political person, but she generally wears her views lightly. She cannot restrain herself, however, from having a little dig at her fellow Kirkcaldian Gordon Brown for ‘bottling out’ of an election in 2009 and thus succumbing the following year to a decade or more of rule by the ‘auld enemy’. The lengthy gestation period of novels usually prevents authors from being totally topical, but the final pages of Still Life have DCI Pirie and her crew clearing their desks and preparing for a Covid-19 lockdown. Karen, as we might expect, is made of stern stuff, and she faces an uncertain future with determination:

” – people would always need the polis – and even in a pandemic, murder should never go unprosecuted.”

For my reviews of the previous two Karen Pirie novels Broken Ground and Out of Bounds, click the links and you will get each in a new tab. Still Life is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

CRY BABY . . . Between the covers

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Mark Billingham is certainly a man of many parts. To name a few, there is Gary, the dim-but-lovable stooge to the Sheriff of Nottingham in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, stand up comedian and scriptwriter, acoustic guitarist with Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers and, of course, best selling crime novelist. But author of historical fiction? Well yes, in a manner of speaking. In his afterword to his latest novel Cry Baby, Billingham says that in writing this prequel to the Tom Thorne series he had to imagine a world of clunky computers the size of refrigerators, telephone boxes and ‘phone cards, and pubs where people smoked.

We are, as ever in London, but it is the summer of 1996. The city and the country – at least many of the menfolk thereof – are transfixed with the European Cup. Crosses of St George flutter from the aerials of Mondeos up and down the land and pubs are rammed with supporters of Shearer, Sheringham, Southgate and company. Detective Sergeant Tom Thorne is trying to schedule his work around the matches, but when a boy is abducted from a London park, football has to take a back seat.

54502348._UY2560_SS2560_Kieron Coyne is playing with his mate Josh under the watchful eyes of their mothers, Cat and Maria. Cat goes off for a pee, Maria settles back on the park bench and lights a fag. One minute Kieron is there, the next he has disappeared. Josh emerges from the little wood where the boys were playing hide and seek. He neither saw nor heard anything of his friend.

A major police investigation kicks in, with Thorne doing the leg work at the best of his incompetent boss. We learn that Cat and Maria are both single mothers – had ‘lone parents’ been invented in 1996? – but in different circumstances. Kieron’s father is doing a long spell in a maximum security prison, while Maria’s doctor husband divorced her a couple of years back.

Hours turn into days and there is no sign of Kieron, dead or alive. A birdwatcher thinks he saw a boy getting into a car with a man he obviously knew, and a Crimewatch presentation by the late lamented Jill Dando turns up nothing more useful than imagined sightings the length and breadth of the country, and the usual false confessions from the mentally ill.

Thorne does find a suspect – a neighbour of Cat’s with a suspicion of ‘form’ for dodgy sexual activity – but the arrest of Grantleigh Figgis does not go well for either the police of the suspect.

Billingham manages the historical details very well, and we meet one or two regular characters from the Thorne series for the first time, none more dramatically than Phil Hendricks, the much-tattooed and oft-pierced pathologist. In a rare droll moment in a seriously dark book, Billingham has gentle fun with making Thorne’s gaydar so wonky that he has our man making enquiries as to why Hendricks hasn’t found the right woman to settle down with. We also meet Thorne’s soon-to-be-ex wife Jan, and fellow copper Russell Brigstocke who, as lovers of the series know, manages subsequently to keep his CV much cleaner than Thorne.

Fans of Billingham’s novels, both the Tom Thorne series and the stand-alones, know that he likes nothing better than a dramatic twist in the final few pages, and he doesn’t let us down here. There is something of a ‘where the **** did that come from’ moment when all the patient door-knocking, statement-taking and deduction of the coppers is spun on its head in a few dazzling pages of revelation. Cry Baby is published by Little, Brown and is out now.

FIND THEM DEAD . . . Between the covers

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Brighton copper Roy Grace seems to have been with us for ever. Since Peter James introduced him in 2005 there have been sixteen episodes in the career of the resolutely honest and decent man who shares none of the character faults of some of his fictional contemporaries. Yes, there was the protracted mystery of his missing wife – now solved, thank goodness – but Grace has few demons; certainly none that involve drink, drugs, dodgy tastes in music or sexual fallibility. Neither is Roy Grace, perceptive and intuitive though he may, cursed with second sight or prone to supernatural whimsies.

So what keeps him as a permanent resident in the crime fiction best-seller charts? It hasn’t hurt that Peter James has pretty much patented the use of that potent four-letter word DEAD in his titles. Simple, Looking Good, Not … Yet, At First Sight are just a few of the the inventive titles James has used. I’ll answer my own question with a simple reply. Peter James is a bloody good writer. End of.

dead013Strangely though, Find Them Dead sees Roy Grace rather in the background. He binds the narrative together by his presence, of course he does, but he mostly takes a back seat in this tale of drug dealers, bent lawyers and jury-nobbling. He has returned to Sussex after a spell working with the Metropolitan Police in London. The sheer depth and depravity of London’s crime has been an eye-opener, but the south coast is not without its villains.

A Brighton solicitor called Terence Gready – what a wonderful Dickensian name – has been arrested on suspicion of being near the top of a multi-million pound drug ring. His favourite modus operandi has been importing the pharmaceuticals packed into bodywork cavities of fake classic cars. His main man on the ground has also been arrested and Gready is in grave danger of spending the rest of his life in jail.

The spine of Find Them Dead concerns the ordeal of Meg Magellan, a middle-aged widow who has been summoned for jury service in the trial of Terence Gready. The bent solicitor is not quite at the apex of his organisation; his bosses believe that his downfall would also implicate them,and so they they target the jury – Meg in particular – in whose hands Gready’s fate lies.

Meg’s daughter is on a gap-year jaunt to Ecuador, and it is by threatening her that the bad guys hope to persuade Meg to emulate Henry Fonda’s Davis in the 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men. If Meg can persuade her fellow jurors that Gready is innocent, then all will be well. If she fails, then Laura will never leave Ecuador alive.

James ratchets up the tension with the true zeal of a torturer. As Grace – and his long term offsiders Norman Potting and Glenn Branson try to get to the bottom of who knows what in the case, we tread a tightrope of anxiety where it is never clear what the next step will bring.

Find Them Dead is published by Macmillan and is out now.

WHITETHROAT . . . Between the covers

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There are locations for British crime novels that fit certain moods. You can have rural idylls which are shattered by evil deeds – the Cotswolds, the Yorkshire Dales and the majestic Scottish Highlands all fit that bill. Then you have the criminals hiding behind the bright lights of cities like London, Glasgow, and Manchester. James Henry has chosen a rather more understated milieu for his Nick Lowry police novels – Essex, and in particular, the garrison town of Colchester.

9781529401134Essex has become something of a trigger word in recent years, conjuring up images such as lavish mansions owned by London gangsters and dumb bottle-blondes with their perma-tanned, medallioned boyfriends. James Henry, however, takes us back forty years to the 1980s. DI Nick Lowry and his boss, Chief Superintendent Sparks, inhabit a police HQ which leaks, has rotten floorboards, and is maybe only months away from the demolishers’ wrecking ball. Sparks contemplates his desk:

“He studied the wooden surface of his desk. Countless semicircles, rings from years of mugs, cups, scotch glasses, placed carelessly and staining the untreated grain. The there were more pronounced wounds and scars: cigarette burns, knife scores, unusual marks – traces of events only the man behind the desk could read.”

Since Roman times, the history of Colchester has been inextricably intertwined with that of soldiering, and it is the death of a young ‘squaddie’ (an unranked private soldier) that Lowry investigates. Improbably, it seems that the dead man was shot in a Victorian-style duel, complete with gentlemanly observance and the presence of Seconds. With the help of his friend Captain James Oldham, of the Military Police, Lowry discovers that the two men had been fighting over a woman. But who was the other duellist, and who was the woman?

The plot goes this way and that, but this is a book that is always about the quality of the prose. Lowry has a young subordinate called Kenton, who has been on leave since being traumatised by the death of a young girl. Kenton is clever, well-educated, but enjoys his stimulants. In pursuit of the more legal kind, he observes pub life:

“..it was different being here as a punter. You saw the place through different eyes; peaceful and inviting and shabbily familiar. Flaking paintwork, worn hardwood surfaces, the yellow, cracked ceiling; a naked aging structure smoothed by the warmth of alcohol and density of cigarette smoke.”

And again:

“The first to arrive were the regulars. Men in their sixties. One, Wilf, was already in situ, perched quietly at a corner table, steadfastly drinking IPA. He would sut there until last orders, then leave as silently as he had arrived. Around midday, the bohemian set – ‘intellectual dossers’, Sparks called them – would drift in. Young men clutching tatty paperbacks. Sucking the end of biros and staring pensively into the middle distance.”

Like most self-respecting fictional police detectives, Lowry’s personal life is something of a wasteland. He is divorced, and his wife has poisoned their son against him. He feels that the years are taking their toll on him, but he remains compassionate:

“Lowry moved to place his arm across Sparks’s shoulders, but instead grasped the nearest arm, squeezed the firm bicep and bowed his head. He was winded by a surge of sympathy, revealing an attachment to the older man that seldom surfaced. Even now – more and more, in fact, the older he became – life caught Lowry out, introducing unsolicited emotions and concerns, age bringing with it a new sort of awareness.”

HenryThe plot is the least important part of this fine novel, but it unfolds gradually. The woman whose favours are being fought over by the duellists is not a woman at all, but a fifteen year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of a local businessman. He, in turn, has unfinished business with a local enrepreneur, and business that dates back to a racial attack three decades earlier. We are in a world of simmering resentment born out of old slights, and the result? The proverbial dish that is best served cold.

Whitethroat is bleak, downbeat and mesmerising; a subtle, compassionate and beautifully written novel that is something of an elegy to a way of policing – and living – that is gone for ever. James Henry (above right), as James Gurbutt, has also written prequels to RD Wingfield’s Jack Frost series. Whitethroat is published by Riverrun and will be out in hardback on 9th July. The two previous Nick Lowry novels are pictured below.

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