On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling

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Overview

A passionate lifelong fan of the Sherlock Holmes adventures, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda is a member of The Baker Street Irregulars--the most famous and romantic of all Sherlockian groups. Combining memoir and appreciation, On Conan Doyle is a highly engaging personal introduction to Holmes's creator, as well as a rare insider's account of the curiously delightful activities and playful scholarship of The Baker Street Irregulars.

Because Arthur Conan Doyle wrote far more than the mysteries involving Holmes, this book also introduces readers to the author's lesser-known but fascinating writings in an astounding range of other genres. A prolific professional writer, Conan Doyle was among the most important Victorian masters of the supernatural short story, an early practitioner of science fiction, a major exponent of historical fiction, a charming essayist and memoirist, and an outspoken public figure who attacked racial injustice in the Congo, campaigned for more liberal divorce laws, and defended wrongly convicted prisoners. He also wrote novels about both domestic life and contemporary events (including one set in the Middle East during an Islamic uprising), as well as a history of World War I, and, in his final years, controversial tracts in defense of spiritualism.

On Conan Doyle describes all of these achievements and activities, uniquely combining skillful criticism with the story of Dirda's deep and enduring affection for Conan Doyle and his work. This is a book for everyone who already loves Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and the world of 221B Baker Street, or for anyone who would like to know more about them, but it is also a much-needed celebration of Arthur Conan Doyle's genius for every kind of storytelling.

Winner of the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Though most people could pick Sherlock Holmes out of a crowd, not many could craft such a spirited and personal account of the great detective’s creator’s life and lesser-known works as Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post book columnist Dirda (Book by Book). A proud member of the Baker Street Irregulars—one of the oldest and largest Holmes appreciation societies—Dirda intertwines his childhood discovery of Holmes and Watson (it all started with The Hound of the Baskervilles) with the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930). While casual readers will associate Conan Doyle exclusively with 221B Baker Street, Dirda makes a strong case for investigating Doyle’s extensive bibliography, which includes adventure stories (The Lost World), historical novels (Micah Clarke), supernatural stories (“The Horror of the Heights”), and books on spiritualism. But Holmes is still the main attraction, and the fascinating dynamics of the Irregulars are as rich as any of Conan Doyle’s fictions. The Irregulars grudgingly accept, but do not encourage, the views of “Doyleans,” who consider the Holmes stories as blips written by the author of The Lost World. Dirda’s lifelong enthusiasm and keen critical skills underscore the timeless quality of the brilliant detective and his multifaceted creator. (Nov.)
Los Angeles Times
[A] brief, elegant reflection. . . . With thoughtful care, Dirda explains how Conan Doyle 'rose above the conventions of his time' in many of his writings. Dirda shines a helpful light on the adventurers Professor Challenger and Brigadier Gerard, while a selection of 'weird' fiction causes him to declare that those stories 'can stand up to the best work of such masters of the uncanny as Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James.' Dirda circles back to Holmes, directing our attention to overlooked aspects of the stories—the elusive presence of Professor Moriarty, for example, or Holmes' brother Mycroft. He also treats us to a delightful, intimate glimpse of the magical power of books in his own early life. What book lover hasn't had at least one cherished experience of reading? Dirda's own involves his loving preparations, as a youth, to read The Hound of the Baskervilles on an appropriately stormy day when the rest of his family was out of the house. . . . And there's much of that same feeling in Dirda's inviting book, which demonstrates why for so many years Dirda has been such an insightful guide to literatures past and present. (Note to director Guy Ritchie: If you're still looking for more Conan Doyle fare after 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' opens next month, you might read Dirda's book for ideas.)
— Nick Owchar
Times Literary Supplement
Charming. . . . As any Conan Doyle aficionado knows, the adventures of Holmes comprise a mere fraction of the oeuvre . . . and one of Dirda's chief concerns is to give the rest of it appropriate attention. . . . Dirda is also enlightening on the author's influences and literary heirs.
— Toby Lichtig
New Republic
Michael Dirda's book is at once a capsule overview of Doyle's character and writing career and an affectionate tribute to boyhood reading—along with Doyle's works, Dirda discusses Sax Rohmer, Lord Dunsany, H. Rider Haggard, and others. It is a treat to come across Dirda's citation of Jacques Futrelle's Thinking Machine stories, including The Problem of Cell 13, the ultimate locked-door mystery (which I hadn't thought about since I was eleven years old). Dirda provides a fond, glancing survey of the books he treasures. . . . Dirda, who loves all of Doyle's work, slights the distinction between the more mature and the more childlike side of Doyle. But his book is irresistible in its eager appetite for the delights of Doyle's hearty, perfectly handled storytelling. Dirda reminds us that a part of every reader is always twelve years old, and that at least some of the books we devoured at twelve will still nourish us splendidly half a century later. Dirda also provides an affecting brief account of Doyle's life. Doyle was a loyal, genial, and generous man, and he had many talents.
— David Mikics
BookForum
The most charming thing about perennial Washington Post literary guru Michael Dirda is his near-on phobic aversion to saying anything other than that a book is wonderful and a pleasure. . . . If we were all to write about reading as Dirda does, if we taught children to write from joy rather than to form arguments, then the world would have many more serious readers and far better books. . . . You will enjoy this book. I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed it not because it was frivolous and not because Conan Doyle is wonderful—in fact, it convinced me he;s not—but precisely because Dirda's restraint triggered in me a vigorous critical spirit. That such a feeling also pleases is elementary.
— J.C. Hallman
Telegraph
Given the excellence of this introduction, it is interesting to see how two new publications match up to the master.
— Andrew Lycett
Harper's Magazine
One of the winning things about Michael Dirda's writing is his appreciation for his fellow appreciators: Christopher Morley, Burton Rascoe, Bernard De Voto, Vincent Starrett and their equivalents in England; all of them were essentially enthusiasts whose job it was to inform the public when good books showed up. There was once a kind of Department of Belles-Lettres that this magazine and others helped staff. The late John Updike, by the end of his life, was its de facto chair. Dirda, with more than thirty years of highly readable literary criticism to his name, may well be a contender. In remembering and reflecting upon his own first excitements as a reader, Dirda is infectious.
— Larry McMurtry
About.com
This small book (210 pages) is an absolute delight! Michael Dirda has an encyclopedic knowledge of Sherlock Holmes. Better, he writes in a breezy, informative and entertaining manner that holds the reader's attention as surely as one of Conan Doyle's many stories. . . . Whether you are a confirmed Sherlockian or one who has just come recently to the canon, there is something here for you. The writing is superb. The memoirist style fits the story perfectly. It is a book that can be read and re-read and never lose its freshness.
— John M. Formy-Duval
Oregonian
On Conan Doyle is at its best when Dirda, a card-carrying member of the Baker Street Irregulars, lets us in on the great 'spoof scholarship' game of filling in the gaps in the narratives of Watson/Doyle in the canon's 56 stories and four novels. . . . But for now, 'on a dark and chilly night,' he prefers to turn out some lights, find a bottle of Orange Crush, and reread The Hound of the Baskervilles. Why make this choice? It is 'elementary, my dear Watson.'
— Glenn C. Altschuler
Newsday
Michael Dirda's dissections of how Conan Doyle achieves such satisfying results in almost every story is the chief selling point of his fine little biography, along with capturing his own boyhood love of Conan Doyle.
St. Petersburg Times
Michael Dirda writes in detail about the Grand Game in On Conan Doyle, his engaging little book about the author and his greatest creation. . . . Dirda makes a sincere case for those other books, but his heart is with Sherlock. He writes affectionately about the enormous Holmes fan community, including an insider's account of the Baker Street Irregulars. . . . And he writes most movingly about his first experience with Sherlock. He describes in vivid detail how, as a fifth-grader, he saw The Hound of the Baskervilles in a paperback catalog, waited for weeks for its delivery—and then put off reading about the 'enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen' until he was alone in the house on a dark and stormy night. Even as a boy, Dirda knew how to read a book.
— Colette Bancroft
NPR
Dirda has written a rollicking, erudite, and terrifically beguiling little book called On Conan Doyle, which is part of Princeton University Press' 'Writers on Writers' series. . . . Reading experiences don't get much more captivating than this; nor does literary criticism.
— Maureen Corrigan
Bookslut
On Conan Doyle also delves into the strange world of Sherlock Holmes 'scholarship.' Dirda spends a generous amount of time discussing the inner workings of exclusive Holmes societies like the Baker Street Irregulars (of which he is a member; On Conan Doyle is dedicated to them), sketching some of the wilder obsessions of Sherlock scholars, and evoking the romance of searching for antique and obscure books in dusty bookstores around the world. . . . Hopefully this book will remind readers that Conan Doyle was, as Dirda writes, 'much more than just the literary agent for those denizens of 221B Baker Street.' On Conan Doyle is certainly tantalizing in its descriptions of Sir Arthur's other stories and novels, but it also inevitably reminds us of the magic of the razor-sharp, eccentric detective and his devoted friend. When winter sets in, the nights grow long, and a yearning for holiday mystery and adventure takes hold, there is nowhere better to turn than 221B Baker Street.
Christian Science Monitor
On Conan Doyle is at once a biography, an appreciation of the Holmes stories, an insightful overview of the other works written by Doyle, and a billet-doux to the Baker Street Irregulars. It is also a memoir of a young man's reading experience. . . . Dirda's first encounter with Holmes was the beginning of a great romance. He recaptures in this book the life-changing ecstasy that reading can be for a child. On Conan Doyle is a celebration of that experience and an invitation to turn again to the world of gaslight and hansom cabs where 'the game is afoot.'
Boston Globe
Michael Dirda remembers vividly his first encounter with Sherlock Holmes. At 10, having bought The Hound of the Baskervilles from his grade-school book club, he held on to the book until he had an evening alone . . . then gathered his stores: 'two or three candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold bottle of Orange Crush.' Thus fortified, the young Dirda wrapped himself in a blanket and submitted to each thrilling, delicious page. In this warm, lively book he repays some of the debt, honoring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's enormous output (21 novels, more than 150 short stories), sturdy prose and, most significantly, the enduring figure of the hyperlogical, eccentric detective Holmes.
— Kate Tuttle
Los Angeles Review of Books
[W]e can be grateful that in this short book, Michael has shared his immense affection for Sherlock Holmes and his creator. What comes through best in the book is his love for tales of adventure, or, as Vincent Starrett calls them, stories 'in which things happen, and then keep on happening.' Dirda also makes a convincing argument that too many readers have let Doyle disappear into his creations. More importantly, it allows those not lucky enough to know Michael Dirda to spend a few hours in his stimulating and fascinating company.
— Leslie S. Klinger
Sydney Morning Herald
Dirda may have won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism and he may be a book reviewer for The Washington Post but first he is an enthusiast. This is a lively and passionate book about the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course it covers the Sherlock Holmes stories and the wonderful sci-fi tale The Lost World but it reaches far beyond those obvious literary highlights to look, with insight and passion, at Conan Doyle's vast and eclectic oeuvre. Such is Dirda's enthusiasm that it is quite impossible not to be fired up. I immediately ordered The Complete Stories of Sherlock and searched for Through the Magic Door.
Weekly Standard
[A] brief but immensely entertaining book.
Marginal Revolution
Short meditation on both the merits of Doyle beyond Sherlock Holmes and why fiction, and our responses to it, are and should be deeply strange. I very much liked it.
— Tyler Cowen
New Criterion
Dirda is less didactic in this volume, but no less willing to offer judgments informed by long affection. His book is quite short, a lovely size for reading in odd moments or, perhaps, by the fire with a glass of something delicious by your side.
— Alexandra Mullen
Bookforum

The most charming thing about perennial Washington Post literary guru Michael Dirda is his near-on phobic aversion to saying anything other than that a book is wonderful and a pleasure. . . . If we were all to write about reading as Dirda does, if we taught children to write from joy rather than to form arguments, then the world would have many more serious readers and far better books. . . . You will enjoy this book. I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed it not because it was frivolous and not because Conan Doyle is wonderful--in fact, it convinced me he;s not--but precisely because Dirda's restraint triggered in me a vigorous critical spirit. That such a feeling also pleases is elementary.
— J.C. Hallman
Barnes and Noble Review

Dirda has subtitled this book The Whole Art of Storytelling, with good reason. Starting from Arthur Conan Doyle's life and work--which included, in addition to the Sherlock Holmes stories, wonderful works of historical fiction and adventure--Dirda weaves a memoir of boyhood, a peek into the world of the 'Baker Street Irregulars,' and a meditation on the power of fiction. The game's afoot!
Sherlock Holmes Journal
[This book] deserves a place on the bookshelves of all who recognise Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the great fiction writers of his age. . . . [S]trongly recommended.
— Guy Marriott
Los Angeles Times - Nick Owchar
[A] brief, elegant reflection. . . . With thoughtful care, Dirda explains how Conan Doyle 'rose above the conventions of his time' in many of his writings. Dirda shines a helpful light on the adventurers Professor Challenger and Brigadier Gerard, while a selection of 'weird' fiction causes him to declare that those stories 'can stand up to the best work of such masters of the uncanny as Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James.' Dirda circles back to Holmes, directing our attention to overlooked aspects of the stories—the elusive presence of Professor Moriarty, for example, or Holmes' brother Mycroft. He also treats us to a delightful, intimate glimpse of the magical power of books in his own early life. What book lover hasn't had at least one cherished experience of reading? Dirda's own involves his loving preparations, as a youth, to read The Hound of the Baskervilles on an appropriately stormy day when the rest of his family was out of the house. . . . And there's much of that same feeling in Dirda's inviting book, which demonstrates why for so many years Dirda has been such an insightful guide to literatures past and present. (Note to director Guy Ritchie: If you're still looking for more Conan Doyle fare after 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' opens next month, you might read Dirda's book for ideas.)
Times Literary Supplement - Toby Lichtig
Charming. . . . As any Conan Doyle aficionado knows, the adventures of Holmes comprise a mere fraction of the oeuvre . . . and one of Dirda's chief concerns is to give the rest of it appropriate attention. . . . Dirda is also enlightening on the author's influences and literary heirs.
New Republic - David Mikics
Michael Dirda's book is at once a capsule overview of Doyle's character and writing career and an affectionate tribute to boyhood reading—along with Doyle's works, Dirda discusses Sax Rohmer, Lord Dunsany, H. Rider Haggard, and others. It is a treat to come across Dirda's citation of Jacques Futrelle's Thinking Machine stories, including The Problem of Cell 13, the ultimate locked-door mystery (which I hadn't thought about since I was eleven years old). Dirda provides a fond, glancing survey of the books he treasures. . . . Dirda, who loves all of Doyle's work, slights the distinction between the more mature and the more childlike side of Doyle. But his book is irresistible in its eager appetite for the delights of Doyle's hearty, perfectly handled storytelling. Dirda reminds us that a part of every reader is always twelve years old, and that at least some of the books we devoured at twelve will still nourish us splendidly half a century later. Dirda also provides an affecting brief account of Doyle's life. Doyle was a loyal, genial, and generous man, and he had many talents.
BookForum - J.C. Hallman
The most charming thing about perennial Washington Post literary guru Michael Dirda is his near-on phobic aversion to saying anything other than that a book is wonderful and a pleasure. . . . If we were all to write about reading as Dirda does, if we taught children to write from joy rather than to form arguments, then the world would have many more serious readers and far better books. . . . You will enjoy this book. I enjoyed this book. I enjoyed it not because it was frivolous and not because Conan Doyle is wonderful—in fact, it convinced me he;s not—but precisely because Dirda's restraint triggered in me a vigorous critical spirit. That such a feeling also pleases is elementary.
Telegraph - Andrew Lycett
Given the excellence of this introduction, it is interesting to see how two new publications match up to the master.
Harper's Magazine - Larry McMurtry
One of the winning things about Michael Dirda's writing is his appreciation for his fellow appreciators: Christopher Morley, Burton Rascoe, Bernard De Voto, Vincent Starrett and their equivalents in England; all of them were essentially enthusiasts whose job it was to inform the public when good books showed up. There was once a kind of Department of Belles-Lettres that this magazine and others helped staff. The late John Updike, by the end of his life, was its de facto chair. Dirda, with more than thirty years of highly readable literary criticism to his name, may well be a contender. In remembering and reflecting upon his own first excitements as a reader, Dirda is infectious.
About.com - John M. Formy-Duval
This small book (210 pages) is an absolute delight! Michael Dirda has an encyclopedic knowledge of Sherlock Holmes. Better, he writes in a breezy, informative and entertaining manner that holds the reader's attention as surely as one of Conan Doyle's many stories. . . . Whether you are a confirmed Sherlockian or one who has just come recently to the canon, there is something here for you. The writing is superb. The memoirist style fits the story perfectly. It is a book that can be read and re-read and never lose its freshness.
Oregonian - Glenn C. Altschuler
On Conan Doyle is at its best when Dirda, a card-carrying member of the Baker Street Irregulars, lets us in on the great 'spoof scholarship' game of filling in the gaps in the narratives of Watson/Doyle in the canon's 56 stories and four novels. . . . But for now, 'on a dark and chilly night,' he prefers to turn out some lights, find a bottle of Orange Crush, and reread The Hound of the Baskervilles. Why make this choice? It is 'elementary, my dear Watson.'
St. Petersburg Times - Colette Bancroft
Michael Dirda writes in detail about the Grand Game in On Conan Doyle, his engaging little book about the author and his greatest creation. . . . Dirda makes a sincere case for those other books, but his heart is with Sherlock. He writes affectionately about the enormous Holmes fan community, including an insider's account of the Baker Street Irregulars. . . . And he writes most movingly about his first experience with Sherlock. He describes in vivid detail how, as a fifth-grader, he saw The Hound of the Baskervilles in a paperback catalog, waited for weeks for its delivery—and then put off reading about the 'enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound as mortal eyes have ever seen' until he was alone in the house on a dark and stormy night. Even as a boy, Dirda knew how to read a book.
NPR - Maureen Corrigan
Dirda has written a rollicking, erudite, and terrifically beguiling little book called On Conan Doyle, which is part of Princeton University Press' 'Writers on Writers' series. . . . Reading experiences don't get much more captivating than this; nor does literary criticism.
Boston Globe - Kate Tuttle
Michael Dirda remembers vividly his first encounter with Sherlock Holmes. At 10, having bought The Hound of the Baskervilles from his grade-school book club, he held on to the book until he had an evening alone . . . then gathered his stores: 'two or three candy bars, a box of Cracker Jack, and a cold bottle of Orange Crush.' Thus fortified, the young Dirda wrapped himself in a blanket and submitted to each thrilling, delicious page. In this warm, lively book he repays some of the debt, honoring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's enormous output (21 novels, more than 150 short stories), sturdy prose and, most significantly, the enduring figure of the hyperlogical, eccentric detective Holmes.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Leslie S. Klinger
[W]e can be grateful that in this short book, Michael has shared his immense affection for Sherlock Holmes and his creator. What comes through best in the book is his love for tales of adventure, or, as Vincent Starrett calls them, stories 'in which things happen, and then keep on happening.' Dirda also makes a convincing argument that too many readers have let Doyle disappear into his creations. More importantly, it allows those not lucky enough to know Michael Dirda to spend a few hours in his stimulating and fascinating company.
Marginal Revolution - Tyler Cowen
Short meditation on both the merits of Doyle beyond Sherlock Holmes and why fiction, and our responses to it, are and should be deeply strange. I very much liked it.
New Criterion - Alexandra Mullen
Dirda is less didactic in this volume, but no less willing to offer judgments informed by long affection. His book is quite short, a lovely size for reading in odd moments or, perhaps, by the fire with a glass of something delicious by your side.
Sherlock Holmes Journal - Guy Marriott
[This book] deserves a place on the bookshelves of all who recognise Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the great fiction writers of his age. . . . [S]trongly recommended.
Library Journal
Written by a lifelong fan of Conan Doyle's work (and an accomplished writer himself, having won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993), this book is equal parts literary biography and the author's memoir of his own life as a reader of Conan Doyle. Dirda urges readers to read beyond the Holmes canon. After all, during Conan Doyle's lifetime "there appeared most of our pattern-establishing masterpieces of science fiction, horror, fantasy, and adventure"—all of which Conan Doyle had a hand in through adventure, sf, and chilling horror stories of his own. Not intended either as academic biography or scholarly criticism, this book will give its readers fascinating tidbits about Conan Doyle's life, including much beyond Holmes, as well as charming stories of Dirda's own love of reading. VERDICT An enjoyable read for those wishing to extend their Conan Doyle reading and for fans of other genres, such as sf, adventure, and memoir.—Megan Hodge, Chesterfield Cty. P.L., Richmond, VA
Yvonne Zipp
[Dirda] makes a compelling case for the value of the author's supernatural, historical and science fiction…
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"[A] brief but immensely entertaining book."—Weekly Standard

"Short meditation on both the merits of Doyle beyond Sherlock Holmes and why fiction, and our responses to it, are and should be deeply strange. I very much liked it."—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

"Dirda is less didactic in this volume, but no less willing to offer judgments informed by long affection. His book is quite short, a lovely size for reading in odd moments or, perhaps, by the fire with a glass of something delicious by your side."—Alexandra Mullen, New Criterion

"[This book] deserves a place on the bookshelves of all who recognise Arthur Conan Doyle as one of the great fiction writers of his age. . . . [S]trongly recommended."—Guy Marriott, Sherlock Holmes Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691151359
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/23/2011
  • Series: Writers on Writers Series
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 621,039
  • Product dimensions: 7.54 (w) x 4.70 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Dirda

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and longtime book columnist for the Washington Post. He is the author of four collections of essays, "Readings", "Bound to Please", "Book by Book", and "Classics for Pleasure", as well as the memoir "An Open Book". A lifelong Sherlock Holmes and Conan Doyle fan, he was inducted into the Baker Street Irregulars in 2002.
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Table of Contents

Preface "You Know My Methods, Watson" ix
"A Hound It Was" 1
"Elementary" 9
"A Most Dark and Sinister Business" 16
"The Lost World" 32
"Twilight Tales" 50
"Steel True, Blade Straight" 74
"I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere" 98
"It Is the Unofficial Force" 126
"I Play the Game for the Game’s Own Sake" 140
"A Case for Langdale Pike" 149
"A Series of Tales" 169
"Good Night, Mister Sherlock Holmes" 188
Appendix "Education Never Ends, Watson" 203
Acknowledgments 207
Biographical Note 210

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2011

    Dirda and Doyle

    The incomparable Michael Dirda recounts his history with the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes and beyond. If you're looking for a biography of ACD, or a life story, this is not the book to choose. However, if you wish to enjoy the history of how a literate man discovered ACD in his childhood, and continues to enjoy Sherlockiana through membership in the Baker Street Irregulars, this book will satisfy greatly. Includes the memorable line, "Little did I know then that book collection is less about acquiring books than about finding the shelf space to store them." (Nook readers have conquered that problem!) Caution: Reading Michael Dirda will add vastly to the list of other books you want to read in your lifetime.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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