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A popular BBC series and a lawsuit over whether his stories are in the public domain are drawing attention once again to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of one of literature’s most iconic characters: Sherlock Holmes. The adventures of the detective and his steadfast companion, Dr. Watson, have been popular with generations of readers and viewers. We consider the enduring appeal of the “canon” of four novels and 56 short stories featuring Holmes and Watson and the many interpretations they’ve inspired on both page and screen.
- Daniel Stashower Historian; author, "Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle"; editor, "Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters"
- Laurie King Author, The Mary Russell mysteries, The Kate Martinelli series and other works of fiction and non-fiction
Audio Excerpt: “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” By Laurie King
The Many Portrayals Of Sherlock Holmes
BBC “Sherlock Holmes” Series With Benedict Cumberbatch
“Sherlock Holmes” 2009 Feature Film With Robert Downey Jr.
“Elementary” On CBS
“Sherlock Holmes” 1939 Film Series With Basil Rathbone
“No Place Like Holmes” Web Drama-Comedy Series
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. You know, great fictional characters have an air of immortality about them. Having never really lived, their legacy often outlives their creators. Capturing the imagination of new generations of readers, inspiring writers in later eras, such is the case of one Sherlock Holmes. The great detective survived his maker's efforts to kill him off, living on in the original 56 stories and four novels that chronicle his adventures with a deer-stalker cap on his head and the dedicated Dr. Watson by his side.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's also been reimagined in seemingly countless iterations and adaptations, appearing in pages penned by contemporary authors, on screens large and small, and influencing the work of detectives real and fictional alike. Here to consider the enduring appeal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's characters is Daniel Stashower. He is a historian and author of several volumes, fiction and non, including "Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle." His most recent work is "The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War." Daniel Stashower joins us by phone. Thank you for joining us.
MR. DANIEL STASHOWERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios of KUSB in Monterey Bay is Laurie King, author of numerous novels, including the Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli series. She's also co-editor of "A Study in Sherlock," among other works. Laurie King, thank you for joining us. I can't hear Laurie right now, but I guess I'll be hearing Laurie King shortly. I'll start with you, though, Daniel. For those who have not spent hours on adventures with Holmes and Watson, could you familiarize us with them and give us an idea of what you and so many others find appealing about them?
STASHOWERWell, where to start? Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have been a part of the national consciousness -- the international consciousness -- since they first appeared in 1887. It is a remarkable portrait of a detective who is able to deduce remarkable things at a glance. But it's also a portrait of friendship. I think that often gets overlooked -- that the appeal of the story, and I think part of what has kept those characters going all these years, is the remarkable relationship between Holmes and Watson.
NNAMDIWhat first sparked your interest in these stories, Daniel?
STASHOWERWell, like most people of my generation, I used to watch the Basil Rathbone movies on Sunday morning television. And I remember being drawn in by those particularly. And then, there's a William Gillette movie called Sherlock Holmes, and there was a staging of it happening in my local community theater. And I auditioned for the role of Billy the Page. And I had only one line. It was, there's someone here to see you, Mr. Holmes. But I thought, in order to really get into character, I'd read all 60 stories. Well, I didn't get the part. But I got a pretty serious case of Baker Street fever.
NNAMDILaurie King, you loved books from an early age, but it's my understanding that you came to Holmes a little bit later. What drew you to the character?
MS. LAURIE KINGI did. I didn't discover him until I was in my 30s and sat down to actually write a story that sort of made use of him in a modern era. I found Holmes when I started writing a new, female feminist, 20th century version of the great detective. And, as Dan says, you then feel this impulse that you really have to know what you're talking about, so ran out and read all the 60 stories. And I have to say that when I had done so, I expected to find a Holmes who was the sort of brain of matters -- I mean, a cold, thinking machine.
MS. LAURIE KINGBut, in fact, I think why we adore Holmes and why he sticks around is not because he's so clever, but because he is an emotional person. His passion for justice and his utter devotion to friends -- even those he attempts to kill occasionally is the thing that speaks to us as readers.
NNAMDIIn case you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Are you a Holmes fan? What first grabbed you about the stories and what keeps you going back, if you're apt to reread them? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to Kojo@WAMU.org, or shoot us a tweet at KojoShow. Laurie, lots of authors have been inspired by Conan Doyle's work, but we need to make the distinction that you do not write Sherlock Holmes stories, but rather Mary Russell stories. How are Mary and Holmes both similar, yet very different?
KINGWell, as I said, she is what he would look like if her were -- instead of a Victorian middle-aged male, a young female of the 20th century. I mean clearly, clearly, I think we can all agree that this is a much improved version, yeah?
NNAMDIWe'd like to hear from Mary. We have a clip from the audio book version of "The Beekeeper's Apprentice," of the first meeting of Russell and Holmes -- I found that fascinating -- as written by Laurie King and read by Jenny Sterling.
MS JENNY STERLINGA gaunt, graying man, in his 50s, wearing a cloth cap, ancient tweed great coat and decent shoes, with a threadbare army rucksack on the ground beside him -- a tramp, perhaps, who had left the rest of his possessions stashed beneath a bush, or an eccentric? Certainly no shepherd. He said nothing. Very sarcastically, I snatched up my book and brushed it off. "What on earth are you doing?" I demanded, "Lying in wait for someone?"
MS JENNY STERLINGHe raised one eyebrow at that, smiled in a singularly condescending and irritating manner, and opened his mouth to speak in that precise drawl which is the trademark of the overly educated upper-class English gentleman. A high voice; a biting one: definitely an eccentric. "I should think that I can hardly be accused of 'lying' anywhere," he said, "as I am seated openly on an uncluttered hillside, minding my own business. When, that is, I am not having to fend off those who propose to crush me underfoot." He rolled the penultimate r to put me in my place.
MS JENNY STERLINGHad he said almost anything else, or even said the same words in another manner, I should merely have made a brusque apology and a purposeful exit, and my life would have been a very different thing.
NNAMDILaurie King, I should have set the scene there, because what happened was the 15-year-old Mary has been walking to Sussex Downs with her nose in a book. She describes the man she very nearly trips over. But you have said, from that very moment, when she tripped over Holmes, that he and Mary took you on the journey of your life -- even, whether or not you really wanted to go there.
KINGYeah. It was one of those very fortunate gifts that an author occasionally has of a character who simply walks in and takes over. Now, of course, that's -- that's shorthand for all of the deliberate work that goes on in the back of a writer's mind.
KINGBut, experientially, that was very much what it felt like, that I had an idea of writing about this young woman who meets and reflects the great detective, and went from there. And she really just, as you I think could hear in Jenny's reading of her, had a very self-assured voice from the beginning.
NNAMDIAnd all of the things you may not have known about the Great War or about early 20th century -- she took you there and taught you.
NNAMDIDaniel, Arthur Conan Doyle set out to be and was, in fact, a physician. How did he go from being a doctor to becoming the creator of these enduring literary and now pop-culture figures?
STASHOWERWhen he was still a very young man, Conan Doyle enrolled in the University of Edinburgh Medical School. And while he was there, he came under the wing of a very influential professor named Joseph Bell who had a remarkable knack for diagnosing not only illness, but also character and occupation, just at a glance. For instance, a man would walk into the consulting room. And Bell would take a look at him and he would say, "A cobbler, I see." And it turned out that the man had a worn patch on the inside of his pants leg. And this was a peculiarity found only in cobblers, where he had rested his lapstone.
STASHOWERAnd Conan Doyle took this in from sort of a back row in the lecture hall, and gradually, by slow degrees over time, saw a way to turn it to his own purposes.
NNAMDIWell, an ironic aspect of this is that for those who may feel that Arthur Conan Doyle became Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for his contributions to literature, they would be wrong, right?
STASHOWERWell, he was knighted in 1902 for his very considerable contributions to the war effort in the Boar War. But it's always thought that it was also a nod to his enduring popularity as the author of Sherlock Holmes.
NNAMDIServed in a field hospital during the Boar War. But, Daniel, I've heard it said that there was more of Dr. Watson than there was of Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle himself. What was his own take on his creation?
STASHOWERConan Doyle is often portrayed as the man who hated Sherlock Holmes. And, certainly, it is hard to argue that his efforts to drag him off that cliff at the Reichenbach Falls was hardly an act of love. But over the years he was able to sort of strike a conciliatory note towards Sherlock Holmes. He was aware that he had done something special, that he had broken new ground. And he said, Sherlock Holmes has been a great friend to me. His regret was that he had perhaps stood in the way of recognition for some of his other work, which Conan Doyle himself considered to be more serious and more literary.
NNAMDIBefore we get back to the influence that Conan Doyle's characters continue to have today, which writers influenced him -- Conan Doyle -- the most?
STASHOWERWell, at the top of the list would have to be Edgar Allan Poe. Conan Doyle was crazy about Poe. And he speaks in his letters of petrifying his small family circle by reading the Poe stories aloud. And he traveled with a copy of "Tales of Mystery and Imagination." And you can certainly see, in the early stories, how "A Scandal in Bohemia," bears more than a passing resemblance to Poe's "Purloined Letter." But what is remarkable about the stories, is how Conan Doyle was able to take this template that had been set out by Poe in "Murders in the Rue Morgue," and other stories and adapt it to his own purposes -- put flesh on the bones, as it were.
NNAMDIIn case you are just joining us, that's the voice of Daniel Stashower. He's a historian, author of several volumes, including "Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle." His most recent work is "The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War." He joins us by phone. Joining us from the studios of KUSB in Monterey Bay is Laurie King, author of numerous novels, including the Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli series. She's also co-editor of "A Study in Sherlock," among other works. You can call us at 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIIs there a screen version of Holmes, either direct or inspired, that you especially enjoy? Tell us why, 800-433-8850. You can also send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Laurie King, the third season of BBC's Sherlock just ended. CBS has "Elementary" with Lucy Liu in the role of Watson. This concludes season 2 in a few weeks. The rumors of a third movie with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law on the way. And that's just scratching the surface of shows and movies where we see the characters themselves or their influence.
NNAMDIWhat do you think accounts for this continuing fascination with these characters in pop culture?
KINGOh, what's not to like? I was amused at the recent Rolling Stone article on the new Cumberbatch series where they -- the headline declares that they've made Sherlock sexy again. I mean, he's always been sexy. He's the brightest light in the whole room. As I said, he's this passionate individual who lets nothing stand in his way. And he's an iconic class from the roots up. He is on the side of the unabled, whether it's a woman in distress or a man who's missing his turkey.
KINGAnd I think that the 21st century responds to his independence and his ability to make use of forensic and investigation techniques in a way that is almost machine like. It's so integrated into his personality.
NNAMDIAnd Daniel, of course, earlier you mentioned one aspect of Sherlock Holmes that people really relate to throughout time, is his loyalty and friendship with Dr. Watson. And of course we've seen tons and tons of buddy movies here, but what do you see as the reason for the enduring popularity?
STASHOWERWell, I think that, you know, in that passage that was read from Laurie's first book, I think every generation in some ways comes across these stories, perhaps trips over them, and then finds something that reflects its own interests and concerns. And that's why you see Sherlock Holmes continually being reinterpreted as each generation discovers him.
STASHOWERWhether it's Basil Rathbone battling the Nazis or the 7 percent solution with a drug addiction problem, or the very modern interpretations in which delve so deeply into the world of computers and technology. It speaks to the strength of the underpinning of the story that each generation can take that foundation and build something new on it.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Why do you think some literary characters have such enduring appeal while others fade away? You can also send us email to email@example.com. The number again, 800-433-8850. Daniel, this may be an unfair question but I'll ask it anyway and then I'll ask the same question to Laurie. But which show or movie has given us your favorite screen adaptation of these characters?
STASHOWERWell, I think we all remain sentimentally attached to our first Sherlock Holmes, which for me was Basil Rathbone. But I can't tell you the pleasure that I'm taking in the modern interpretations, both the BBC Sherlock and Elementary, because I have a 14-year-old son who is now finding his way up those 21 steps to Baker Street -- the 17 steps I should say. Sorry, Laurie. Because he is finding his way into Sherlock Holmes through these modern interpretations and sort of paddling upstream to the original story.
NNAMDISame question to you, Laurie.
KINGOh, I'm greatly enjoying the new Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The plots leave a little bit of creaking in the back of the head. I mean, you're aware that there's certain elements of them that they should’ve tidied a bit in their rewrites. But I'm willing to forgive that because of the role of Watson. I think that Watson has long been discounted as a character, certainly in the Rathbone stories, the versions of them. And I don't think that Sherlock Holmes is Holmes without his Watson.
NNAMDII agree. We do have -- what do you say, Daniel?
STASHOWERI agree with that totally. And it shows you how little I know because I would've objected to the casting of Martin Freeman in that role because I thought of him only as a comic. And yet it's his comic timing and that sort of reserve that he has that makes him such an effective foil for Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock. I think the two of them are great and I think there has to be a strong Watson, as Laurie says, because he's sort of the smoked glass that lets us look directly at the brilliance of sunlight that's coming off of Sherlock.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number. We're going to be taking a short break. This is, of course, our winter membership campaign but we will be returning to this conversation about Sherlock Holmes. So if you are calling now, stay on the line, 800-433-8850. If the lines are busy, you can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or a Tweet @kojoshow. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about Sherlock Holmes. We're talking with Laurie King, author of numerous novels including the Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli series. Laurie King is also coeditor of "A Study in Sherlock" among other works. Also joining us is Daniel Stashower, historian author of several volumes including "Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle." His most recent work is "The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War."
NNAMDIYou can send us an email to email@example.com or you can send us a Tweet @kojoshow. But of course you can also call 800-433-8850. So let's go to Laura in Fairfax, Va. Laura, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURAThank you. I have been enjoying the most recent version of Sherlock with Mr. Cumberbatch. But I was wondering about the role of Mycroft, Sherlock's brother because on the show he has a very prominent role. And if you could talk a little bit about Mycroft and where he came from and Arthur Conan Doyle's treatment of him in comparison with the show, I'd appreciate it.
NNAMDIDaniel Stashower, I'll start with you.
STASHOWERWell, obviously Mycroft is an original character in the stories. he appears in two of the original Sherlock Holmes stories. He's described as being immensely fat and uninterested in engaging with the world around him. Sherlock says of him, if the art of detection work confined to the armchair, his brother Mycroft would be the greatest detective who ever lived. And that's why when we first meet Mycroft in the Benedict Cumberbatch series, Sherlock asks him how the diet is going.
NNAMDICare to comment at all, Laurie?
KINGOh Mycroft is such a useful character from a writer's point of view because a lot of the books that I do are set in other parts of the world. And to have Mycroft who is a -- he's described as being someone who keeps the books in a government agency. But elsewhere he is described as someone who is the government. So clearly he is involved in the intelligence gathering and implementing wing of the British government. And he's so useful because he can send people in all directions. So I very much appreciate having Mycroft on my palate, as it were.
NNAMDILaurie, there's been some question over whether Conan Doyle's characters are in the public domain. And the U.S. court recently settled a lawsuit on that question brought by Leslie Klinger with whom you've collaborated. What questions did this ruling answer and what's your take on the decision?
KINGWell, Les brought the court case because of a second collection that he and I are in the process of editing, which will be called "In the Company of Sherlock Holmes." And the Conan Doyle estate took the point of view that all of the Conan Doyle stories were still under copyright. And Les, being a lawyer, said, well no not so much.
KINGSo he took it to court and a decision was reached by the judge last fall to say that -- well, it was a Christmas present basically -- to say that, yes, the stories that were published before 1923 are in the public domain. The ten stories that were published after that are still under copyright. And therefore any characters and situations that are specific to those ten stories remain under copyright. The estate, I believe, has decided -- and this isn't my case so I'm not up on the details, but I believe that the Conan Doyle estate, which is by the way not any of the Conan Doyle family, has decided to appeal on this.
KINGSo it's -- obviously, you know, the court cases go back and forth for a while, but the basic decision -- legal decision was that you can play with these characters so long as you don't step on elements of those final ten stories.
NNAMDIWhat's your take on it, Daniel?
STASHOWERWell, I can only look at through the point of view of Conan Doyle himself so far as we can imagine it. And I think he would be interested but also bemused in the fact that this is all going on more than a century after he created the character. He had particular trouble with the copyright in America in his early years as a writer, when the copyright protections in America were not enforced as stringently as they might have been. And he would complain that some of his earlier editions were being pirated and reprinted and distributed widely. And that they might have been printed on the paper that shop men use for parcels.
STASHOWERAnd he once was giving advice to young authors and he said, "Have a care. Have a care, young authors, or your own worst enemy will be your early self."
NNAMDIOnto the telephones again. Here's Paul, in Arlington, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULThanks, Kojo. A quick comment and then a question. I thought the Robert Downey Jr. portrayal of Holmes was fairly unusual, but really marvelous in sort of emphasizing his eccentricities. So I hope your guests could comment on that. And then my second thought was the influence of the home stories on American literature more broadly. I'm thinking about, for example, the notion of discovering the past, that things don't seem as they are in a novel like "The Great Gatsby," and the narrator Nick Carraway sort of playing that role through the novel. So I just wanted to hear the comments of your guests on that. Thank you.
NNAMDILaurie, I'll start with you. The Robert Downey portrayal or the influence on other characters in literature?
KINGOh, I thought that Robert Downey clearly had a grand time. And I think that those movies are another illustration of how necessary in the balance of those stories a strong Watson is. Because without Jude Law in those movies, they would be comedy sketches. With Jude Law they become explorations of eccentricity.
STASHOWERI've heard complaints that those movies reduce Sherlock Holmes to an action figure, but those elements were always there. And in fact, I'm a grown man who has a Sherlock Holmes action figure lovingly preserved in its original packaging. So it's hard to complain about that. And I do think that these movies highlight elements of the original stories that are very worthwhile, like the strong Watson, as Laurie says, and particularly the relationship between the two of them and how Watson brings out the better nature of Sherlock Holmes and allows him to become a better person, as well as a better detective.
NNAMDIHow about the influence of the themes on other literature? Our caller cited "The Great Gatsby."
STASHOWERWell, "The Great Gatsby," is one of those novels that distinguished by having found the perfect voice in which to tell the story. And I think that can be said about a lot of great literature. And obviously the voice of Watson, the narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories, is critical to the success. Conan Doyle found the right voice in which to tell those stories. And it made all the difference. The huge influence of Sherlock Holmes obviously was made in the detective genre, where almost every detective that is followed exists in relation to Sherlock Holmes or even as pacing off a safe distance from Sherlock Holmes. But all modern mystery and detective novelists work in his shadow.
NNAMDIWe got an email from David, who asks, "What do your guests make of the fact that although Doyle created Holmes, famous for rational thinking, Doyle himself believed in spiritualism and was fooled by the little girls who made up the story of the Cottingley fairies?" Laurie?
KINGOh, this is one of my favorites, yes. It does definitely illustrate that the writer is not the piece of fiction that he or she has written. Any writer, upon first meeting a fan, has to deal with that startlement in their eyes, like, oh, this is not Mary Russell.
NNAMDIExactly right. We go on now to Paul, in Arlington, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Hi, Paul. Oh, I think -- Paul, are you there? No. I don't think Paul's there anymore. In that case we'll move on to Catherine, from Lews, Del. Catherine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CATHERINEAnd that's Lewes, Del.
NNAMDIHi, Catherine, from Lewes, Del.
CATHERINEHi, Lewes, yes. I've got a comment or question. When my nieces were elementary school age -- and that's probably about 20 years ago now -- I took them to see a movie called, "Young Sherlock Holmes," or "The Young Sherlock Holmes."
CATHERINEAnd it was wonderful. And it gave them such a great introduction to the Sherlock Holmes series. And I bought the video years ago. And of course since no one owns a VCR anymore I can't watch it, but I've never seen it on TV or any of the movie channels. And I was wondering if anyone there had ever seen it and what you thought of it. And if you could maybe persuade a channel to show it again. I just thought it was a great movie.
NNAMDIDaniel, what happened to "The Young Sherlock Holmes?"
STASHOWERWell, it's a wonderful movie. It's directed by Barry Levinson. And it was released, I believe, in 1985. And it takes off on the -- as the title suggests -- on the premise that Sherlock Holmes began his adventures as a schoolboy. And it starts in a school where he meets a young Dr. Watson. And I believe in their first encounter deduces something about Watson's fondness for jam tart. It's a terrific movie. I do own it on DVD. So it's out there.
NNAMDISo there's some place that you should be able to Catherine. Thank you so much for your call and good luck to you in your hunt. Laurie, we got an email from Dave, in Reston, Va., who says, "Is the idea of a female Watson too far out or is Lucy Liu miscast Also, I think "Sherlock" makes much better use of London as a locale and part of the cast, then "Elementary" does of its New York City locale." What do you say, Laurie?
KINGI think that they have a lot of fun with New York in the same way that the BBC "Sherlock" looks at modern London. I think that Lucy Liu, as a Watson is a very interesting choice. I think many of us thought of it at first and scratched our heads and said I don't really know about this. But she seems to have really stepped into the role and inhabited it in some very interesting ways.
NNAMDIHere's Renee, in Washington, D.C. Hi, Renee. Renee are you there? Renee is no longer on the line. Daniel, setting out to solve a mystery, Holmes once urged Watson to hurry as the quote I was using too much earlier, "The game's afoot." The game continues for a group known as the Baker Street Irregulars, which has its own air of mystery about it, at least for us outsiders. Tell us how one becomes a member and what does membership entail?
STASHOWERLaurie and I are both members of the Baker Street Irregulars. It's a group that meets once a year in New York. And it dates back to the 1930s when a group of gentlemen headed by Christopher Morley and others, who got together to discuss obscure aspects of the story and we're playing what's called The Great Game, that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are not fictional characters at all, but they exist in the world and these stories are worthy of study as biographical pieces. And there's a great deal of fun to be found in that.
STASHOWERIt's now a group that has several hundred people in it. And many spinoffs or scion societies meeting all over the country, all over the world really, with wonderful names like Mrs. Hudson's Lodgers, and Dr. Watson's Neglected Patients, gathering to discuss such things as the depth to which a sprig of parsley might sink in butter on a hot day because there a throwaway reference in one of the stories.
NNAMDILaurie King, this sounds like a group that has a lot of fun together and maybe does a little bit of drinking sometimes.
KINGHow did you know?
KINGYes. I was going to say that the BSI really got its start as a men's drinking society, basically. And you have to go from there. So there are a number of women in there. The current Wiggins, the head of the BSI is now very enthusiastic about having women members. But it is a sort of mysterious group, in that you never quite know what the rules are, but we all have a lot of fun.
NNAMDILaurie King is the author of numerous novels, including the "Mary Russell" and "Kate Martinelli" series. She's also co-editor of "A Study in Sherlock," among other works. Laurie, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIDaniel Stashower is a historian. He is the author of several novels, fiction and non, including "Teller of Tales: The Life of Arthur Conan Doyle." His most recent work is "The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War." Daniel, thank you for joining us.
STASHOWERIt's been a pleasure.
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