Guest Post: Why No ‘Cormoran Mania’?

COEFans, Noir, and the Question of Violence: Speculations about the Popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Detective Fiction — A Guest Post by ChrisC!

With the impending release of Lethal White, the next volume in J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike Mysteries, an old question occurred to me.  Has there been any uptick in enthusiasm from her fanbase?  Maybe I don’t pay enough attention, however I still don’t know whether the series has yet to pick up steam.

I hope the series does pick up notice.  It’d be a mistake for her fans to neglect what so far has proven to be a more or less fine-tuned storytelling machine.  At the same time, it is possible to take a few educated guesses at just why the series might be held back from total popularity.  It can even be argued what elements of the books themselves might keep it from a wider appeal.  I bring the topic of the books’ reception up because I think that if the response to Cormoran Strike should ever turn out to be more guarded than that given to the Potter series, then it helps to understand the reasons why longtime fans might turn out to have a surprising amount of ambivalence with regard to the latest fictional exploits of their favorite author.

With that in mind, after the jump, you’ll find a list of aspects about the series, Jo Rowling’s fans, and what a potential clash between the two could mean for the series’ prospects.

f38811174Demographic appeal

Once about a while ago, an associate of Jim Henson’s once admitted to being sorry that working for the Children’s Television Workshop on Sesame Street might have saddled them with a permanent reputation as “just kid’s stuff”.  There seems very little to apologize for, yet the anecdote does reveal something about the almost unshakable quality of first impressions. 

While I think Rowling started her career on the right note by welcoming readers of all ages into her Wizarding World, the fact remains that in writing about Harry Potter she tapped into a vein that was able to appeal to a literal mass audience.  The Hogwarts Saga has more than demonstrated its ability to entertain demographic ages that range from as young as five years all the way to the Big 5-0.  I don’t think this was intentional on her part, rather the Potter books were written in such a way that the great majority of people have been able to appreciate and support.

By turning to the Thriller genre for her next big exploits, whether she means to or not, she now runs the risk of halving a slice of her pre-established base.  Don’t get me wrong, it is quite possible write a detective story for children, or at least to write a detective story in such a way that it might replicate the cross-generational appeal that Harry enjoyed.  It should be obvious that this is precisely the direction Ms. Rowling has not taken.  However entertaining the Strike novels may be, almost no parent is going to be comfortable passing them down to their kids, at least, not until they’re older.


Cuckoo 2This is the part that seems the least important as far the Strike stories are concerned.  However it can also be another part of the books that might be a cause of concern for the fans. 

In terms of a language rating, Rowling was able to keep things mostly at PG level throughout Harry’s story.  It’s only near the very end of Deathly Hallows that she breaks this rule, by giving Molly Weasley the chance to utter a much earned B-word in response to a threat on her daughter’s life.  So far, I’ve never heard any complaint about its use in the final Potter novel.  I think the reason must be that reader identification in that moment was always so tight that it was impossible to even bat an eyelash at such an out of place word.  In the moment, a reader, in particular a parent, is never going to question such an emphatic statement of caring for one’s own offspring.

In Strike’s world we enter a setting where profanity is a literal everyday occurrence that is sometimes wall-to-wall in terms of acoustics.  Most parents are likely to think twice before even so much as walking a kid through that kind of environment.  If language is just the hors d’oeuvre, then the main course in the controversy surrounding the Strike series is a bit of a doozy.

Violence in Noir and Gothic Fiction

f39172134Here’s a question: how many Rowling fans also read Stephen King?  Okay, how many more are fans of movies like Halloween, Night of the Living Dead, or classics like Psycho or Evil Dead 2 or Army of Darkness?

If I had to guess, I’d say those who would answer yes to all of the above take up a sizeable number of The Presence’s audience.  In terms of being able to earn a living off of Strike, she’s got nothing to worry about.  It’s when you turn to the same question of age and taste that the problem starts.  The kind of films I mention, and the sort of books Rowling is now penning are all defined by two things for our purposes: their age group can neatly range from teen to adult, and their subject matter is, for lack of a better word, dark.

To give an example of what I mean, let’s take a film that might have at least a thematic relation to the next Strike book.  Part of the fan discussion has been whether or not Strike Book 4, Lethal White, will concern the drug heroine.  I know of a horror film that centers round it.

Wait until Dark is a 1967 thriller, starring Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin, that tells the story of Lisa, “the World’s Champion Blind Woman”.  She suffers her condition as the result of a bad car accident that happens off-stage before the curtain opens.  Since then, she’s been attending blind school, and slowly, yet surely learning to cope with a literal change into a new life.  For the most part, however, she has been able to continue living a normal existence.

Then one day, Harry walks into her life.  Meet Harry Roat Jr. “from Scarsdale”.  He’s a professional courier/hitman of sorts, and his latest escapade involves hunting down a few kilos of heroine stashed away in a musical doll.  Through some mix-up the doll wound up in the possession of Lisa’s husband, who has brought it home, and has now misplaced it.  This makes Harry very unhappy.  Now, after successfully manipulating her husband out of the way, Harry is left alone with Lisa in her tiny apartment, and he is determined to find that doll, whatever it takes.

hilaire-belloc-the-poet  If the set up sounds dull, then the final result is a far different beast.  The movie telegraphs its nature early on when Arkin’s Roat gets into an argument with his two partners.  It escalates to the point that Roat draws a stiletto with a handle carved in the shape of a woman, and one of the henchman picks up an old rotary dial phone and swings it like a medieval mace.  It’s at that moment the viewer should realize they’ve entered Insane Clown Posse territory.  To top it all off, that scene ends with Roat granting his accomplices access to a closet.  There’s a very nasty surprise waiting in that closet.  Don’t surprised if, when that scene comes up, you’ll hear the Twin Peaks theme in your head.

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  At its heart, the story is a kind of modern gothic fairy-tale, with the character of Harry Roat from Scarsdale embodying a latter day Big Bad Wolf.  The reason I bring it up at all is to highlight the territory Rowling is now working in with the Strike Mysteries.

By penning stories like Silkworm or Career of Evil, she signaled her clear intent to tread the same ground as films like Wait until Dark or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  That probably sounds like a stretch.  She’s J.K. Rowling after all, not Ted Bundy.  Perhaps, however bear in mind that what matters is the genre she has now chosen to write in.  It is known as either the Mystery, Thriller, or Detective genre.  However the term that seems to best encompass the whole of the ideas that make up the genre is Noir.

In his book Horror Noir, critic Paul Meehan is able to demonstrate the genre’s origins as an offshoot of Gothic fiction.

f39105958“The macabre has been an element of the mystery story since the inception of the genre.  Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, first published in 1841, is considered to be the first example of detective fiction.  Poe’s eccentric sleuth M. Auguste Dupin cracks a multiple murder case in which the perpetrator turns out to be a homicidal ape.  Arthur Conan Doyle’s most memorable Sherlock Holmes adventure is surely his 1901 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, in which Holmes squares off against a phantom hound and a ghostly family curse.  The Victorian writer Wilkie Collins incorporated the trappings of the supernatural into his seminal detective novels The Woman in White (1860) and The Moonstone (1868).  All of these writers (and Poe in particular) are also known for their horror fiction.

“Morbidity has always been a prime feature of detective/mystery fiction, where ghastly murders and dire plans constitute the soul of the plot.  The noir fiction of Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich and Raymond Chandler, although realistic in nature, is populated with characters who are monstrous grotesques (3)”.

london-street-wallpaper-b80uI’d argue that this same shared grotesque element is one we’ll be seeing here and there in Denmark Street for quite a while.  It’s a change of tone that is quite drastic.  Don’t be surprised if some fans are willing to abandon her because of that.  King once said that the question most often asked is “why do you write that stuff?”  In other words, why waste your time on a bunch of junk like horror fiction?  I think we can expect a variation of that question to one day be put to Ms. Rowling.

The bottom line is that, for the time being, she’s decided to take the audience down some very dark alleys.  She decided that she has a lot of “interesting things” to show us.  We just have to be willing to follow over to that special corner, the one where not even the light from the street lamps can touch.  It probably doesn’t help that one of the rules is we can’t even bring a night light along with us for protection.  It should go without saying that she plans on showing us a lot of nasty surprises while leading us through the dark.  For instance, what’s that she’s got behind her back, and why does it glint even in the dark.  Why does she smile like that?

It’s a deliberate challenge she has thrown down for readers.  For that reason it may help to know where everyone’s boundaries are.  So far, I’ve done the best I could to give a hint at the challenge concerning the level of violence and gore that an audience might be willing to stomach.  For a long time the biggest accusation she’s had to fend off was that of being some kind of witch.  Now, the challenge will shift to the age-old question of how much is too much in a work of adult fiction.  When it comes to her fans, I think the response to the Strike Series will come in at least three categories

The Three Responses to Strike.

1 The Reluctant Fan.

HB3This is the type of reader or viewer who have the least interest in anything that could be labeled dark and violent subject matter.  Their reasons will vary from general squeamishness to even an actual lack of ability to be either scared, or entertained by fear as represented in any work of art.  It is from this group that most of the criticisms of Rowling’s new books are likely to come from. 

The most common complaint to expect from this group is that “she’s just not like her old self”, “why can’t we have the old Jo back”, “I liked you better when you wrote kid’s stuff,” etc.  It may be possible to win over converts from this group, however, unless a willingness  or imaginative sympathy on their part is displayed, I’d say it’s best to let things be.  The second group is a much more promising and fertile ground.

  1. The Fence Sitters.

This section contains anyone from the casual reader willing to take what comes, to the literary omnivore.  You can expect most of the people in this group to have taken at least the kind of interest in Rowling’s work that will keep them coming back for more.  These readers may or may not have hipped to the fact that Bob Galbraith and the Hogwarts author are one and the same, though finding out such a fact may serve to pique their interest.  If they can come away from any of the first three books in the series thinking it was pretty fun and wanting more, then they’re the right sort of audience for Rowling’s new venture.

  1. The Enthusiasts.

HB4This is a group that comes in two interrelated parts.  These are long established members of Rowling’s original audience, people who’ve been with her since all the way back in 97 when the first Potter novel was released.  Their fandom has never really gone away, and darn it if they’re still eager for more.  There is, however, one peculiar fact about them.  In order to understand what it is, it helps to compare them with the first group.  That first set also contained a lot of die-hard Rowling fans, yet only a few of them are willing or able to make the transition from fairy story to Noir.  The reason why has to do with the fact that this third group is distinguished by one possible shared trait: most of us are also fans of the modern Gothic as well.

As a member of this third group, part of the appeal of the Strike books is the familiarity factor.  For me, taking a first peek into these volumes was like going back visit some old, yet well liked stomping ground, like a sandlot used for sport when you were a kid.  I was introduced to the world of Conan-Doyle somewhere about 9 to 12 years old.  Before that, John Bellairs and Alvin Schwartz, and then Edgar Allen Poe granted me my first introduction to the Horror genre.  It’s like they were sort of my Tales from the Crypt in a way.  It’s precisely because these kinds of books made up the content of my literary education that I had no real problem jumping right into the world of Cormoran Strike.

I think there’s a high possibility that any reader who says they like the Strike series will do so because of either a shared similar background in reading material, or else a shared taste in the arts.  We were raised on the Gothic, in the variety of its two main genres, Horror and Mystery.  Anyone with that kind an imaginative sympathy will find a great deal to enjoy about the Denmark Street novels.

Conclusion: Muted yet Great Expectations

Robert GalbraithMs. Rowling was never a stranger to controversy.  In the beginning, she had to fend off accusations that she was either a witch, or else some kind of occultist.  I don’t think switching genre gears is going to make her detractors go away.  However, it is possible the shape of those protests will take a different, yet similar form.  Expect the next big to be Rowling controversy to swirl around the age old question of violence in fiction.  Look for her to be held up as a bad example for children with her focus on “the criminal element”.  She might even have to fend off the most ironic charge imaginable, that her portrayal of violence against women will actually get her labeled as anti-woman. 

All of those charges sound absurd if given even a moments honest thought.  Nothing could be further from her intentions than promoting some kind of misogyny.  As for bad examples, why on earth would you assume she’s writing children’s fiction?  Cuckoo’s Calling begins with the author laying out a scene of devastation as she describes the aftermath of Lula Landry’s death as seen through the eyes of Inspectors Wardle, Carver, and the ever-present Paparazzi.  While all of it is exciting, and helps to build a momentum of suspense, nothing in this opening set-up suggests that what follows will be child friendly.

The irony is that Harry Potter has somehow managed to cement itself as “kids’ stuff” in the popular imagination.  The fact that Rowling was able to break out of this mold means the clash of audience expectations will have to be jarring by its very nature.  This inability to see past public perceptions of reputation is going to be one of the major stumbling blocks that new readers to the Strike series will have to face. 

the-silkworm-cuckoos-calling2Finally, the last element of the Strike series that could limit its appeal is the nature of its very familiarity.  The Potter series seems to have just enough novelty about it that it was able to coast on the idea that audiences had discovered something new and intriguing on the publishing scene.

With Strike, Rowling is treading familiar territory in a way that many have seen before.  If Strike had been written by any of the old veterans of this genre, say by Donald Westlake or Ed Mcbain, chances are it would have been relegated to the midlist fiction rack.  This is the rung occupied by the likes of John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, Dean Koontz and V.C. Andrews.  The irony is that such an outcome might not have been bad news as far as the author is concerned.  If Rowling had never been outed as the writer of the Strike books, if she had been able to keep hidden under her pseudonym, then the idea of a quiet career in midlist fiction might have been right up her alley.  As it stands, she still looks like being able to enjoy such prospects.  For all we know, this could very well have been her intention all along. 

Either way, here’s the major prediction.  The next great conflict J.K. Rowling will have to face in her new career as a novelist is whether the sheer narrative drive of her stories will be enough to win over new converts or whether pride and prejudice will carry the day. 


  1. Robert Terry says

    I’m not sure if I missed something, by why are there photos of Hilaire Belloc in this article?

  2. Kelly Loomis says

    I read Cuckoo Calling and liked it. It had that typical Rowling twist that I find enjoyable. The second, I only got partwaythrough. I think my reason was, as you pointed out, the genre – “gothicness”. I don’t mind a muder mystery and actually have no problem with violence on some levels. I like spy novels and wartime settings. I think it was more the gruesomeness and sexual nature of the murder. I was encouraged to finish it and I think I will.

    Harry Potter, for me, even though dark, was an escape. I loved the magical world and no matter how far into the darkness Harry got, there was still
    That aspect of fantasy and learning about a new world full of wonder. I could appreciate Rowling’s intricate details, structure, etc within a more likable context. New spells, characters and backstory continued to fascinate me all throughout.

    The new Fantastic Beasts though having older characters and getting darker, is still set within that magical context. It is going to give me more backstory on a world that I love.

    I read and watched all of Tolkien’s works, have been a Star Wars fan from the beginning but not at the level I’ve invested into the magical world and characters Rowling has created. So, I guess I’m saying that it is more than just the fantasy world, symbolism and depth of character found in those works. Somehow Rowling just put it within a context and setting I’ve found fascinating. I think one thing I appreciate is that there is always some kind of humor and delight found in these stories (including Fantastic Beasts) whether it be Fred and George Weasley or the niffler creating mayhem. I remember reading about the musical Les Miserables and how they intentionally interjected some humorous songs in the midst of the tragedy and put them in purposeful places. Maybe that’s one of the things I enjoy and helps to break up the seriousness of the story and/or characters.

  3. Hilaire Belloc, a personal favorite poet, essayist, and apologist, is the closest likeness both in physical appearance and in interior, belligerent sense of justice, right, and truth to the character Cormoran Strike.

    Hence my decision to use his pugilist visage in posts about the Doom Bar Detective.

    Did you know that Rowling is a Belloc fan?

    “‘I’ve loved Hilaire Belloc ever since I read Cautionary Tales for Children when I was about 10. Verse 22 of his Dedicatory Ode has been pinned on my study wall for several years.'”

    It’s a curious quotation for several reasons, most notably I cannot find a source for it other than and there is no ‘verse 22’ to Dedicatory Ode, a five stanza poem. Or maybe Dedicatory Ode is much longer than this web page suggests? Wikiquotes offers the fifth stanza here as ‘stanza 22’ of the Ode in question from ‘Verses’ (1910).

    More certain is her contribution to ‘Once Upon a Poem’ where she introduced a Belloc Cautionary Tale with the elegiac: “Belloc is one of my favorite poets for his wit, understatement, and for his profundity — but, perhaps most of all, for the lion called Ponto who ate Jim.”

    Not to mention that the Chestertonians claim her as one of their own…

    Apologies to the Chesterbellocians offended by this usage (please do pick up a copy of Cormoran Strike, though, and see if the Peg Legged Private Eye isn’t a ringer for Hilaire…).


  4. Kelly,

    It’s interesting that you mention the concept of Escape. That’s the second time you brought it up, I think. For me, it wasn’t so much about Escape as, I guess, coping is the right word? If I had to say what is the number one reason people enjoy both aspects of Gothic fiction, then there’s only one simple explanation. We read scary/violent stories to help control our own fears.

    If that sounds messed up, then, well, who knows. Maybe there is something wrong with a person who tries to scare himself when he already is a bit of a nervous wreck. I’m just going by my own experience here (maybe Dr. Louise Freeman could chime in an expert take here?), however in my case it’s a matter of both parents being worry-warts, and passing on that trait to their son. It’s not a question of heredity, and more of monkey-see-monkey do (for better or worse).

    I’m not saying the experience of fear itself is enough to grant anyone an interest in the arts. Fear can awaken one aspect of the imagination, however by itself all fear can do, it seems to me, is serve to isolate and block off someone from others, and life in general. Instead, it is the display of fear in an artistic mode that serves as a help to real life anxieties. G.K. Chesterton said “Fairy Tales are real, not because they tell us that dragons can be defeated”. In other words, like Fairy Stories, Horror pretty much validates your worst imaginings, while at the same time hinting that even then there’s still the possibility of light at the end of the tunnel.

    The first time this happened, I was barely five years old, so it never hit me until later. However it was “An American Tail” that somehow managed to do all of the above that I said. Ever since then I’ve been able to plug into reality through fiction, if that makes any sense (and even if it does, I still don’t understand all of it, that’s for darn sure!). It was a film that was brutal, and then showed you how to deal with it.

    That, to the best of my knowledge, is why a lot of folks are horror/mystery fans. Because it helps put their own fears in perspective, and sometimes even offers solutions to those same anxieties.

    Yeah, like I said, even when it makes sense, I’m still puzzled. Weird, huh?


    I wondered if the photos I was seeing were either Belloc, or else Arthur Machen. I’m kind of surprised to find someone as liberal as JK being an admirer of HB. I did know about her liking for Chesterton, though.

  5. I think there are two obvious points that you missed: 1. Using a pseudonym and the marketing difficulties that come with it (not all of those who like the Potter books are aware of the pseudonym, as they might not be fans enough to actually follow Jo’s career), and 2. I’d wager that many people love the Potter books because of rich world building and escapism, whereas the Strike novels happen in the real world. Alrhough you did mention that people might just not like the new genre, it might also be that people are just not as interested in good writing per se, But crave for the novelty of a completely new world.

  6. Brian Basore says

    In the late great Mugglenet Academia live podcasts Keith and John ask for a show of hands on who had read the Cormoran Strike novels. Not many, usually.

  7. Suvi,

    In terms of your first point, I could be wrong, but aren’t you sort of restating a point I already said? Then again, the fault might very well be mine. I implied the idea that Rowling could have chosen to write under a pseudonym because of the very anonymity it offered, without going into any very great detail about it.

    This idea isn’t my own by the way. It was first expressed on this site by John Granger. Since it’s not an original idea with me, I merely alluded to it. I thought most readers on this site would be familiar with the topic Mr. Granger brought up so that they could form their own opinions about it.

    Is anyone familiar with the topic I mean? If not, then the link to consult is this Mugglenet Academia (Requiescat en Pace) discussion here:

    I believe your concerns about marketing are also discussed.

    Your second point brings up the topic of what Tolkien called Secondary Worlds. Here I could again be wrong, however I think Tolkien’s concern was with “encounters of men on the verge of “Faerie”, his word for a realm that encompasses both the Fantastic and the Transcendent.

    There are two things to note about Tolkien’s words. The first is something that gets lost in most readings. It is true that a work of imaginative fiction, by its very nature, is distinct from real life. I would even go so far as to widen this distinction to the point of saying that it is a mistake to look for, or appeal to any kind of “realism” in terms of either presentation or characterization in a novel, play, film, or short story.

    In order to achieve its proper effects, all fiction relies on exaggeration and caricature, two phrases which address both situation, action, and event within a work of fiction, as well as the problem is the novel of “character”.

    With this in mind, Tolkien himself admitted that all Middle Earth was (this term applies just as well to Rowling’s novels) a fictional (i.e. “Secondary”) version of our world. John D. Rateliff makes this point clear in the first volume of “The History of the Hobbit””

    “that Bilbo’s world, the lands of The Silmarillion, and our own world are all one (albeit at different points in history) is demonstrate through many of Tolkien’s explicit statements:

    ‘Middle-earth’, by the way, is not a name of a never-never land without relation to the world we live in (like the Mercury of Eddison). It is just a use of Middle English…altered from Old English Middangeard…imaginatively this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet (19)”.

    This “period” Tolkien created is fictional. Still, Middle Earth and the Wizarding World are just fictional versions of the real world. Tolkien’s use of “Secondary World” is just another term for “Work of Fiction” in general. The elements that make a story in any possible genre Mythopoeic are a bit more complex. This brings me to the second point.

    The idea is that Mythopoeia is a term that could be applied to to genres that might be considered non-Fantastic, such as Noir. If this sounds like a stretch, one of the Inklings, and Dorothy L. Sayers seem to have tried to apply the very terms, ideas, and concepts of Mythopoeia to the Mystery/Detective genre.

    Jared Lobdell has published “The Detective Fiction Reviews of Charles Williams”, an anthology of reviews of detective novels by various Golden Age authors of the genre that were made by CW over a five year period (1930-35). In doing so, Lobdell is able to prove that Williams was not only familiar with Mythopoeia, but also how it could apply to other genres. Take the following passage:

    “Williams listed fantasy as one of the four principal, indeed elementary, ways “of constructing tribal lays,” for the tribe of the “thriller” or detective fiction reader. I find this of particular interest, for reasons which should become clear, and have a great deal to do with rhetoric and vision. For fantasy, you will remember, as a craft (which is what a tribal poet practices), has rigorous requirements for sub-creation; if the writer is to make the rare and beautiful moon to shine, or to put fire in the belly of the cold worm (“On Fairy Stories,” p. 122), then he or she had best have managed that elvish craft of enchantment (20)”.

    Further, in his collection, “The Image of the City”, Williams drops a few hints of the importance Film Noir to the genre, in the course of a review on a book and Shakespeare’s dramatic technique:

    Yes, apparently the Inklings “went there”.

    The point is I believe that a deeper digging to the thought of the group as a whole, and not as isolated authors, can reveal the depths of the ideas that went together to make Mythopoeia. In particular, one comes to an understanding of just how elastic the idea is in being applied for cross-genre purposes.

  8. Cormoran Strike and the Invisibility Cloak, the MNet Academia show we did on the mystery of why Rowling’s second septology hasn’t taken off (and why I thought it would after the third book [WRONG]) is now available at this url:

    Let me know if there are any jewels in that item out of the vault!

  9. Suvi,

    On giving it some further thought, there was one last part of your response that I don’t think I ever addressed all that clearly.

    It has to do with your use of the term Escape and Real World.

    The point of my first reply (which I may or may not have botched, come to think of it) is that the very nature of fiction (even when set in an imaginary version of real life) does depend on any realism to achieve it’s effect.

    What I just now realize is that perhaps I should have asked from the start just what exactly do you mean when you use the words Escape and Real World in your reply?

    I think knowing the thinking behind that statement is important, as knowing your thoughts behind your words could help clarify a knowledge of your own thinking on this subject.

    For instance, I said in an earlier reply that the ultimate defense of the more extreme tropes of both Gothic genres (Noir and Horror), was that they in fact helped readers and fans confront their own fears and anxieties, thus helping them to “plug into reality”.

    I could be wrong, yet I always thought that was the basic type of reading Tolkien had in mind when he uses the word Escape in his “Fairy Stories” essay. Did you mean the opposite of this line of thinking, and (if you’ve read the essay in question titled “On Fairy Stories” by JRRT) do you believe Tolkien meant it in this opposite vein?

    Just asking.

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