Lethal White: The White Horse Evidence

We have less than a month before the publication of Lethal White so it is time for some serious fun. Speculating about where Rowling/Galbraith is headed is a delight, especially when Strike parallels with corresponding Potter novels and Rowling’s twitter and website postings are mixed in with what we have in the first three mysteries, parallels and postings we didn’t have in the run-up to any part of the Hogwarts Saga.

To start us off, I plan on posting three pieces about the meaning of the Strike 4 title, Lethal White, especially with respect to the growing consensus that it has something to do with horses. I first want to summarize the evidence for the equestrian bent (“White Horse!”) in the writings of some Potter Pundits, then point out the many parallels between what we know about the fictional Jonny Rokeby and the real life of Mick Jagger, and conclude with a discussion of the more likely meaning of Lethal White, namely, that it is a reference to heroin from Afghanistan and to the death of Leda Strike, the over arching story of the Doom Bar Detective’s series.

So, what evidence is there that Lethal White is all about horses and white horses at that? I came up with ten suggestions, not an especially magical number but one large enough to demand serious attention.

  1. Lethal White — The Equestrian Genetic Disease

Go ahead. Google ‘lethal white.’ What you get (or got before the book title supplanted everything else) is that ‘lethal white’ is the name of a fatal genetic abnormality among horses. I wrote about this here.

‘Lethal White,’ as an equine genetic disease creating fatal albinism, is a pretty strong indicator that the story will be about white horses and genetics, right? The disease is most often found in the offspring of American Paint horses. It turns out that it used to be a commonplace (before identification of the responsible gene and a test for same largely eradicated it) because horse breeders wanted foals with ‘paint,’ white markings on the face, flank, and legs. Horse fanciers pay more for these painted Paint Horses than for those without the markings, often paying close to twice as much.

The genetic condition is called ‘Lethal White’ because the foal born with it is all but albino, fully formed, and healthy in appearance but dies a miserable death consequent to colic in a few days unless put down because its colon is not fully formed. ‘Lethal,’ then because 100% fatal; ‘white’ because of the total coloring in the desired ‘paint’ (American Paint horses are chestnut or copper colored except for the white markings).

The word you’re looking for is “eugenics.” Rowling’s work turns on denouncing in story-form the prejudices and metanarrative favoring the ‘well-born’ social classes and the injustices suffered by those born with tin rather than silver spoons in their mouths. Lethal White the novel promises the return of Charlotte Campbell-Ross, perhaps with her husband Jago (rhymes with ‘Draco’). Charlotte and spouse are over-bred aristocrats who embody all the pejorative elements in the PC slur “white privilege.” ‘Lethal White’ because of this class’ pre-occupation with blood lines and selective in-breeding, not to mention abhorrence of miscegenation and ‘marrying beneath oneself’ socially, is neat summing up of the forces that broke up the Cormoran-Charlotte relationship of more than a decade.

Is there an obvious link between the series so far and horse breeding problems? No, there isn’t. But there are nine more pointers to get through.

2. Book Blurb — Murder “Up by the Horse”

On 10 July we learned that Strike 4 would be published on 18 September and a little bit about the story:

‘I seen a kid killed…. He strangled it, up by the horse.’

When Billy, a troubled young man, comes to private eye Cormoran Strike’s office to ask for his help investigating a crime he thinks he witnessed as a child, Strike is left deeply unsettled. While Billy is obviously mentally distressed, and cannot remember many concrete details, there is something sincere about him and his story. But before Strike can question him further, Billy bolts from his office in a panic.

Trying to get to the bottom of Billy’s story, Strike and Robin Ellacott – once his assistant, now a partner in the agency – set off on a twisting trail that leads them through the backstreets of London, into a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament, and to a beautiful but sinister manor house deep in the countryside.

As Oxford’s Bea Groves commented at the time, “horse” here might only be a mispronunciation of “house,” the “beautiful but sinister manor house” mentioned later in the blurb. But, there is the word “horse” in the lede to the story. Maybe the story is about a horse, right? Or a statue of a horse up by the house?

3. Off With His Head! Book Cover on JKRowling.com site; White Horse in Morris Dance

Rowling’s home web site is not PotterMore; it is JKRowling.com. It’s worth a visit every month or so to see what she’s put up there. Early this year I noticed a book cover I’d missed on previous drop-ins. The title is barely legible (see picture on the right), but it turns out to be Ngaio Marsh’s Off With His Head! which was published as Death of a Fool in the United States. I asked my Lewis Carroll expert and friend, Brian Basore, to look into it because I assumed it was a reference to the Red Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Not so much, it turns out.

But — Alchemy (the forge!), the Fool (see Evan Willis on the Harlequin) temperaments/humours, Shakespeare, Jonson, mise en abyme, murder mystery… with P. D. James’ The Skull Beneath the Skin, Marsh’s Off With His Head is another model for Silkworm and a brilliant alchemical murder-mystery set-piece. It’s must reading for Potter Pundits, especially with the Rowling.com cover posting.

And, as Brian Basore reminds me, the murder in the novel turns on the details of a Morris Dance routine in which the star figure is a white horse in two pieces. Are you seeing a pattern?

4. March 2018 Twitter header — White Rocking Horse

Rowling suggested in January 2017 that her Twitter headers are her attempts to “sum up everything I’m working on at the moment.” I’ve been collecting them ever since on the off chance that they might serve as clues about her Strike or Beasts works in progress. In March 2018 she posted a header of — surprise! — a white horse. Now, it isn’t a real white horse but either a statue or a child’s rocking horse. Still, though, another white horse.

5. Twitter header — Apocalypse with Death (and Christ) on White Horses

In October 2017 her Twitter page header was a cut from the painting ‘Death on a Pale Horse.’ Read about this masterpiece here. It’s based on Revelation 6:8:

And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.

If Rowling does not mean for white horses to feature in Lethal White, she’s dropping a lot of clues down this peculiarly equine rabbit hole.

6. Twitter Picture — White Horse Thumb Drive

On 23 March 2018 Rowling tweeted the simple message, “Finished,” as in “Lethal White is finished.” The picture she chose for the announcement was of a white horse thumb drive in two parts, shades of the Morris Dance figure.

Again, a white horse. If this is a judo move, she sure has her attentive readers leaning in one direction. We almost have to expect the story line to feature a white horse, right?

7. Twitter Header — Chapel Ceiling, Chapel used as Stable

When the publication date was announced, the book blurb to whet our appetites (tie the feed bag on?) included the tease that we would be led down a “twisting trail” into “a secretive inner sanctum within Parliament” (see above, #2). Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, was all over this in a heart beat. As she wrote on a HogwartsProfessor thread:

I think we know what that ‘secretive inner sanctum within Parliament’ might be – and, rather surprisingly, it comes with another equine connection! I think the inner sanctum will be St Mary Undercroft in the Houses of Parliament (which turned up as a Rowling Twitter header in February: https://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/name-that-jkr-twitter-header-ceiling/). This chapel was completed by King Edward I in 1297 and was where the Court and the Royal Household worshipped. Because it was underground it was a rare medieval structure to survive the Palace of Westminster ‘s nineteenth century fire though it was still heavily restored in the later nineteenth century (by Edward Barry, who tried to retain the Gothic feel). The Chapel is a Royal Peculiar (directly controlled by the monarch – unlike most Church of England Churches which are under the jurisdiction of a bishop). Now, it is mainly used for the weddings and baptisms of the families of MPs and Peers – which remains its most likely use in the plot of Lethal White.

I think Rowling will be drawn to the Gothic fantasy of its roof carving (the part of the building that appeared in her Twitter header) – all dragons, beasts and foliage – and to the building’s slightly unecclesiastical history when it degenerated into a a wine cellar and a dining room for the Speaker of the Commons (when holes were bored into the wall for chimneys). One of these ‘not very Chapel-like’ uses might be relevant to Lethal White, given the equine genetic disease (‘Lethal White’) and the surprising foregrounding of horses in the quote we’ve been given – ‘He strangled it, up by the horse’ – (I suspect the editor sent that back with ‘are you sure you don’t mean ‘house’?’). This is that legend has it that Oliver Cromwell stabled his horses in St Mary’s Undercroft….!

I love the Twitter header direct hit with the promised “secretive inner sanctum within Parliament,’ but have to think the equine connection is a stretch. But it is in there, so it merits a mention.

8. Castor-Pollux as ‘The White Horsemen’

Much more impressive, I think, is the mythological connection with Cormoran Strike and white horses. Rowling’s major at the University of Exeter was French but she spent enough time on “the Classics corridor” that she wrote about her mythological studies in an Exeter alumni bulletin, ‘What Was the Name of that Nymph Again Anyway?’ (Read up on all that here.) In it she boasts that she now (1998) had more books on mythology than she did as an undergraduate, i.e., it is still a vital interest to her.

HogwartsProfessor readers know about the underlying myth of the Cormoran Strike mysteries because of Joanne Gray’s exegesis and that of Evan Willis, two researchers working independently. Both arrived at the Castor and Pollux myth, the sons of Leda and Zeus/Tyndareus, as the foundation of the Strike overarching story.

From Joanne Gray’s ‘Mythological Leda Strike: Cormoran, Zeus, Castor, and Pollux:’

 In the myth of Leda and the Swan, her two sons took their wives quite literally; they abducted two women from the Messenians, Phoibe (Lunar-Bright) and Hilaeira (Softly-Shining), who are known to history as the Leucippides, “Of the White Horses.”

Just like the “little trouble” that occurred from another abduction, that of Castor and Pollux’ half-sister Helen of Troy, the brother’s abduction of the two “White Horses” didn’t end with a “happily ever after.” Those princesses were already promised to Lynceus and Idas, the Aphareides, whose dad was Neptune, and these guys weren’t willing to let go of their betrothed without a receipt. They gave chase, and, you guessed it, everybody dies.

Evan Willis discusses the parallels between Cormoran the boxer and Pollux the pugilist and speculates about who might be Castor, the Dioscuri twin associated in Bullfinch with the “breaking of horses.” He ties together the drama of Orestes which is the mythic floor of Harry Potter with Castor and Pollux who mediate on the Avenger’s trial. Read the whole thing.

Rowling is re-casting myth as she did with Orestes and Harry Potter, and if the correspondences are not aways obvious or indisputable, they’re significant. Stealing the “White Horses” leads to Castor and Pollux’s death. If Strike and Shanker are the Dioscuri stand-ins for the mythic Sons of Leda, this is no small thing.

9. Jack and the Beanstalk — and White Horses?

There’s a fairy tale, too, at the heart of the Cormoran Strike mystery, a tale everyone knows and, to my knowledge, all Peg-Leg Private Eye Pundits have over-looked. As Strike relates to Orlando and publisher Christian Fisher in The Silkworm, he is named for the Cornish giant that Jack of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ fame killed. It’s an unusual chapter in the three books we have that doesn’t include some reference to Strike’s first name and how few people get it right.

Beatrice Groves writes about Cormoran’s name at MuggleNet:

Cormoran, meanwhile, is Cornish and tall (like the Cornish giant after whom he is named), and his surname comes from Cornwall too. Rowling has said that she found the name Strike “in a slim book about Cornwall.” My best guess is the slim volume Cornish Short Stories, which contains a murder mystery entitled “Corporal Strike.” Strike’s military title, the story’s genre, and the protagonist’s one-legged father, at least, all form tempting connections.

Rowling has written that Strike’s “surname came from a real (but deceased) man mentioned in a slim book about Cornwall,” but in 2014, she described him as an author of a book about Cornwall. Given this inconsistency (and the fact I’ve failed to find any books about Cornwall written by a Strike!), this evocative murder mystery is my best guess for the source of Strike’s name. It is by H. Spring and can be found in Cornish Short Stories, ed. Denys Val Baker (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976).

If there are white horses in the ‘Corporal Strike’ mystery, I trust Prof Groves will let us know! (The book can be had for $10 online.)

Evan Willis suggests in his post on alchemy, Harry Potter, and Cormoran Strike that, because Clytemnestra, the sister of Castor and Pollux, daughter of Leda, murders Agamemnon that Strike needs to be wary of his sister Lucy.

Is there a half-sister of Cormoran, not a daughter of Rokeby, who will play the role of Clytemnestra? Lucy is a possibility. Is she going to remain as innocent as she has appeared in the first two novels? The symbolic setup of these novels, by their connection with Euripides’s Electra, leads one to expect a variation upon the story of Orestes.

I’ll leave you to explore the Orestia connections in Potter and Strike on your own and with Evan Willis’ help. I’m obliged to note that Lucy’s second son is named ‘Jack,’ he loves his uncle Cormoran, and seems intent on following in his footsteps.

How about an online search for ‘Jack Beanstalk White Horses’? Not much there except for a link on the back pages to a long out of print book titled The Lost Language of Symbolism. I was able to find a hard copy this afternoon, believe it or not, at the Oklahoma City University library just down the street. There is a long chapter in volume 2 just about The White Horse. And, yes, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ gets a page-long discussion.

The problem is that there is no mention of a white horse in the various versions of the Jack and Cormoran story. If you need a refresher, try out this one and this one, one Jack the Giant Killer without a beanstalk but featuring King Arthur (!) on Cornwall’s St Michael’s Mount (mentioned and pictured in Silkworm), and even one by E. Nesbit, one of Rowling’s favorite writers. The University of Mississippi has a page devoted to various ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ stories. Dive in!

But you will find no white horses. The Lost Language discussion of Jack is about the beanstalk and the chain of being. In the ‘Sign of the Cross’ chapter after the ‘White Horses’ discussion in Language there is some discussion of the symbolism of Hermes and in ‘The Heavenly Twins’ chapter before the White Horses, I learned about Castor and Pollux. The closest thing to a white horse in ‘Jack’ though, is an aside that that the “white lady on a white horse” plays a magical, golden harp. There is one of those, but the fairy Jack meets isn’t riding a white horse and we are not told about the original owner of the giant’s harp.

I’m going to have to return to the Jack legends before Lethal White is published because the question of why Leda named her son after a Cornish giant that gets an axe in the head from Jack in a pit trap has to be answered, right? For now, though, just a footnote that, unless the Corporal Strike mystery in Cornish Folk Tales features horses, we don’t have a Cormoran the Giant connection with this symbolism.

10. Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse — and the Manor House Mystery

If researching the origin of Cormoran’s name was relatively fruitless with respect to white horses, a look at ‘Robin Venetia Ellacott-Cunliffe’ is rich and rewarding. Cunliffe is, unfortunately, near pornographic both in its literal and its derived meaning in popular usage, however appropriate it may be to Matthew. Ellacott, more kindly, means something akin to ‘elf cottage’ and is Cornish in origin (Rowling may have first stumbled on it at the University of Exeter, not too far from Cormoran’s childhood haunts). ‘Venetia’ is the name of a high-powered barrister and the murder victim in P. D. James’ A Certain Justice, a novel largely about the limitations of the justice system (Dagleish does not get his man in this book).

And ‘Robin’? Strike attempts a ‘Batman and Robin’ joke on their first day at the office which joke failed because Robin assumed his “That won’t be hard to remember” was a joke about her ‘red breast’ (Strike had saved her from falling down the stair case by grabbing her by and brusing her left breast). I don’t think Robin is named Robin, though, because of her being side-kick to Strike’s Batman or her inflamed chest. I think it is a pointer to two of Rowling’s favorite books, Burnett’s Secret Garden and Goudge’s Little White Horse.

You can read about Secret Garden and the remarkable parallels with Harry Potter in ‘The Secret Doctrine of The Secret Garden.’ Just as in Burnett’s real life experience at Great Maytham Hall, the heroine in Secret finds the entrance to the hidden walled garden because of the direction of a robin. Robin Ellacott is the magical means, I think, to Cormoran’s recovery from the latent virus of his feelings for Charlotte Campbell-Ross so there’s something of a match.

Rowling has not spoken about Secret Garden but Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse is a professed favorite. From Harry Potter’s Bookshelf:

Outside of Jane Austen and Emma, the most frequently mentioned author and book in Ms. Rowling’s many interviews of more than ten years are Elizabeth Goudge and that writer’s The Little White Horse, the Carnegie Medal winner for children’s fiction in 1946. Odds are good that you have never heard of this book and, if you have, that you never would have except for Ms. Rowling’s enthusiastic and repeated endorsements of it. Because of her push, the book has seen a great revival and will be coming soon to a theatre near you as a major motion picture.

In interview after interview, Ms. Rowling praises Little White Horse. “I adored that book” (Renton, 2001). “My favorite book when I was about 8 was The Little White Horse, and the heroine, Maria, because she was a very interesting heroine — she wasn’t beautiful, she was nosy, she had a temper. She was human, in a word, when a lot of girl characters tend not to be.“ (Barnes and Noble chat transcript). “My favourite book [as a child] was The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. It was probably something to do with the fact that the heroine was quite plain but it is a very well-constructed and clever book and the more you read it, the cleverer it appears. And perhaps more than any other book, it has a direct influence on the Harry Potter books” (Lindsay Fraser).

As you’ve probably guessed from the title, there is a white horse in Goudge’s Carnegie Medal winning classic. Only it’s not really a horse; it’s a unicorn. And the child heroine’s true love is a poor boy named Robin with whom she has her several adventures to restore Merryweather Manor and the surrounding valley to peace.

I devote the better part of the last chapter in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf to drawing out the influences and evident parallels in the construction of this “clever book” and Harry Potter. The short version is that it is an alchemical masterwork, a ring, and both a profound Christian allegory and political parable (lots of meaning in the book’s lion and unicorn, especially with reference to George Orwell’s essay of the same title and UK traditions about that pair). Do check out the discussion in Bookshelf or just get a copy of Little White Horse yourself. You won’t regret your time with Maria, Robin, and company, believe me.

I think Little White Horse is potentially important for understanding Cormoran Strike, though, beyond the Robin connection and the Manor House mystery we’re promised in the Lethal White book blurb, because the fact that the white horse is a unicorn and in this a symbol of Christ points to a larger meaning if indeed a white horse appears in Strike 4. The Lost Language of Symbolism devotes an entire chapter to ‘The White Horse’ symbolic tradition largely because of it’s divine signification; the white horse “was the symbol of the Divine Mind or Reason, and equus, the Latin for horse, resolves into the light of Ek Hu, i.e., the great mind, soul, or spirit” (v. 2, p 37). This link to the noetic or spiritual capacity of man and the Logos with which it is continuous returns us to the Inkling tradition of logos epistemology in which Goudge and Rowling have written. Will we see Rowling return to this in Lethal White? Check out points #5 and #7 above.

I can only note that it is a possibility if I think it unlikely in a non-magical work. Still, though, if we’re talking Rowling and ‘white horses,’ it would be gross negligence not to bring up Elizabeth Goudge’s unicorn and the role it plays in one of Rowling’s favorite works.

Conclusion: Ten ‘White Horse’ Pointers (So What?)

Is ten pointers enough to justify the belief that we’ll be seeing a white horse or two in Lethal White? This is not even to mention the references to horses in the first three Strike novels. The two that come immediatey to mind? From The Silkworm:

Experience had taught Strike that there was a certain type of woman to whom he was unusually attractive. Their common characteristics were intelligence and the flickering intensity of badly wired lamps. They were often attractive and usually, as his very oldest friend Dave Polworth liked to put it, ‘total fucking flakes.’ Precisely what it was about him that attracted the type, Strike had never taken the time to consider, although Polworth, a man of many pithy theories, took the view that such women (‘nervy, overbred’) were subconsciously looking for what he called ‘carthorse blood.’

And in Career of Evil

“Did you ever have a pony?”…

“What on earth do you want to know that for?”

“This feels like the kind of car you’d take to the gymkhana.”

Her reply had a touch of defensiveness:

“Yes, I did.”

He laughed, pushing the window down as far as it would go and resting his eft hand there with the cigarette.

“Why is that funny?”

“I don’t know. What was it called?”

“Angus,” she said, turning left. “He was a bugger. Always carting me off.”

“I don’t trust horses,” said Strike, smoking.

“Have you ever been on one?”

It was Robin’s turn to smile. She thought it might be one of the few places where she woud see Strike truly discomforted, on the back of a horse.

“No,” said Strike. “And I intend to keep it that way.”

“My uncle’s got something that would carry you,” said Robin. “Clydesdale. It’s massive.”

“Point taken,” said Strike drily, and she laughed.

What to make of that? Is Robin, with her mention of being “carted” around by Angus, also after Strike’s “carthorse blood”? Is Angus, the name of a cow, a reference to the cow Jack trades for the magic beans?

I doubt it. In fact, I’m doubtful that Rowling is dropping these twitter hints about white horses as anything more than an elaborate red herring. There is an easier explanation of the “white horse” she is referring to than the equine disease or esoteric symbolism, as much as I have to hope we will see the almost-promised comic event someday of Cormoran atop a horse.

Tomorrow, Jonny Rokeby as the not-very-subtle caricature of Mick Jagger and what the “white horse” probably means. Let me know in the comment boxes below your thoughts on the ten white horse pointers we’ve been given!


  1. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks for this illuminating post John!

    I hadn’t thought about Rowling’s hints with reference to horse metaphors within the novels before, and the two that spring to my mind (both from Silkworm) link in with your first point about breeding, as they are compare both Matthew and Charlotte to thoroughbreds. The first is the description of Matthew’s looks, probably through Robin’s eyes: ‘six foot one, with a firm cleft chin and bright blue eyes, he looked like a thoroughbred kept in a paddock of Highland ponies.’ The second is when Polworth’s linking of Charlotte with a thoroughbred (‘nervy, overbred’) that you mention above, is made explicitly equine when, 27 chapters later, Strike remembers Polworth’s warning that Charlotte will not, after all, want to ‘breed’ with someone from her own set:
    ‘You be on the watch, Diddy, for signs of her galloping back over the horizon. Wouldn’t be surprised if she bolts’ (p.357, chap 40)

    Looking forward very much to the next two posts in this series!

  2. I’ll admit, when speculation for this novel first began, I was more or less in the live horses camp. However, recent correspondence has managed to tip me into the latter side of believing that we should be thinking less “Silver Blaze” and more “Miami Vice”.

    Along with a shared email about possible plot details, I think it might have also been Prof. Groaves’ surmises on the idea of horse statuary (as opposed to real live equines) that perhaps laid a subconscious foundation for getting me to see the other alternative.

    All I can say is I hope the alternative drug theory pans out. Also…

    Mr. Granger,

    There’s a bit of remarkable coincidence involved here. I swear I’m making this up when I say I ran across and own my own copy of Bayley’s “Lost Language of Symbolism”. I ran across mine by pure chance back in July in a chain store called “Half-Price Books”. It seems interesting by and large. If I had to slight anything it would be a period related bias against Catholics, and a regrettable tendency to equate scholars of the Renaissance with Gnostics, when I think a distinction needs to be made. Still, it does seem like a book worth tracking down, a bit dense at times, yet it’s also reads like an adventure story.

  3. This may just be my mind free associating, but I was thinking through the possibilities of what context “up by the horse” would make sense in. One springs to mind. In the English countryside, up on a hill, sections of grass have been methodically removed for centuries to maintain an image of a white horse on a green background as seen from a distance. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uffington_White_Horse Such a landmark, up on a hill, would certainly be enough of a location that “up by the horse” would make a lot of sense.

    G.K. Chesterton wrote an account of a battle between King Alfred against pagan invaders, centered around this particular white horse, in his 2000+ line poem The Ballad of the White Horse. Thematically, a reference like this fits Rowling very well, given the portrayal in the work of the pagans as proto-Nietzscheans overcome by the Christian King Alfred. (This poem was a large part of the culture in my time at Hillsdale. I have one friend who I am almost certain can recite the whole of it from memory).

    Also worth a thought, just to add to the catalogue of actual white horse references. In a Mick Jagger connection, there seems to have been an incident in which Bianca Jagger entered into a nightclub riding on a white horse. There even seems to be a song about it, entitled Ride a White Horse (http://www.arjanwrites.com/arjanwrites/2005/12/meeting_goldfra.html#.W37xeuhKiUk), which is popularly thought, though denied by the songwriter, to be influenced by the T. Rex song “Ride the White Swan”. White Horse, Jagger, and swan references all in one place, with a literal white horse present. There was a comment on the talk page on wikipedia for the song about whether this was also meant as a drug reference.

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