Friday, December 15, 2017

Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of

Harold Schechter
Ballantine Books
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars



In the horrifying annals of American crime, the infamous names of brutal killers such as Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, and Berkowitz are writ large in the imaginations of a public both horrified and hypnotized by their monstrous, murderous acts. But for every celebrity psychopath who’s gotten ink for spilling blood, there’s a bevy of all-but-forgotten homicidal fiends studding the bloody margins of U.S. history. The law gave them their just desserts, but now the hugely acclaimed author of The Serial Killer Files and The Whole Death Catalog gives them their dark due in this absolutely riveting true-crime treasury. Among America’s most cold-blooded you’ll meet

• Robert Irwin, “The Mad Sculptor”: He longed to use his carving skills on the woman he loved—but had to settle for making short work of her mother and sister instead.

• Peter Robinson, “The Tell-Tale Heart Killer”: It took two days and four tries for him to finish off his victim, but no time at all for keen-eyed cops to spot the fatal flaw in his floor plan.

• Anton Probst, “The Monster in the Shape of a Man”: The ax-murdering immigrant’s systematic slaughter of all eight members of a Pennsylvania farm family matched the savagery of the Manson murders a century later.

• Edward H. Ruloff, “The Man of Two Lives”: A genuine Jekyll and Hyde, his brilliant scholarship disguised his bloodthirsty brutality, and his oversized brain gave new meaning to “mastermind.”

Spurred by profit, passion, paranoia, or perverse pleasure, these killers—the Witch of Staten Island, the Smutty Nose Butcher, the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell, and many others—span three centuries and a host of harrowing murder methods. Dramatized in the pages of penny dreadfuls, sensationalized in tabloid headlines, and immortalized in “murder ballads” and classic fiction by Edgar Allan Poe and Theodore Dreiser, the demonic denizens of Psycho USA may be long gone to the gallows—but this insidiously irresistible slice of gothic Americana will ensure that they’ll no longer be forgotten.

My Review

I discovered Harold Schechter while taking criminal justice electives toward my degree in General Studies. During my Intro to Criminal Justice class, I read Deranged, a bone-chilling account of one of the most monstrous of serial killers. Arrested for the kidnapping and brutal murder of 10-year-old Grace Budd, Albert Fish confessed to kidnapping, torture, rape, murder and cannibalism of many more young victims. Though the subject matter was deeply disturbing, this was quite possibly one of the best true-crime books I’ve ever read. During my Juvenile Justice class, I picked up Fiend, the story of Jesse Pomeroy, the youngest person in Massachusetts to be convicted of first-degree murder. Because he was only 14, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Then I read Fatal, about Jane Toppan, a nurse guilty of poisoning numerous elderly patients in her care.

I like Harold Schechter’s writing style. His books are well researched and rich in historical details. Not only is he skilled at bringing the past to life, he excels in exploring the mindset of individuals and societal attitudes at the time the crimes were committed.

Though I have a few more of his titles on my shelf, I haven’t read any more until I recently borrowed a copy of Psycho USA from the library. This book is different in that this is a collection of short accounts of little-known criminals from the past. In the introduction, Schecter explains why certain crimes are forgotten while others remain vivid in our collective memories.

“The crimes that come to define an era tend to be those that reflect its most pressing anxieties.”

Unhappy with rising taxes, increasing financial difficulty and wanting revenge on his community, Andrew Kehoe set off explosives that destroyed a school and his house and farm, killing his wife along with 38 children and injuring 58 others. Not only was this crime eclipsed by Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Americans were just not fearful of terrorism in 1927.

There are poisoners, serial killers, kidnappers, torturers, and rapists. Some were mentally ill, making me wonder if psychological intervention could have prevented their crimes. I was shocked by the number of criminal and accidental deaths due to poison in the Victorian era, a time when there was no control over sales and people needed affordable ways to control vermin.

The stories are presented chronologically, starting with the late 1700’s and ending with 1961. While I enjoyed these snippets, I prefer the author’s full-length books that go into much greater detail.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Mystic (Nightblade Epic #2)Mystic by Garrett Robinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Mystic Jordel is in search for the fugitive wizard Xain. Jordel will only say he needs Xain for a fight that's coming, but nothing more. Loren seeks to find Annis and resume her life of adventure.

Mystic is a book about running away. People are chasing Loren constantly and she uses a carriage, her feet, a boat, and horses to run away...for nearly the entire book. If Loren isn't running away she's making plans to run away.

When Loren isn't running away or planning to run away she's making terrible choices. I don't know that any character in any book has survived so long after making so many terrible choices. Granted she was slightly smarter than she was in the first book, but that was the most horrible display of decision making I ever witnessed.

I'd like to say there were good points, but they were rather obvious. The magestones come into play and shortly afterward it's apparent what the result will be. A new piece of information about Loren's dagger is learned, but it felt mostly irrelevant.

The story in Mystic and the first book of the series has no actual plot. The only thing it seems the characters have done is run away. There are a few quick moments where other things happen, but they are quickly replaced by the characters running away some more.

Perhaps the biggest head scratching part of the story is that for some reason all of the main characters look to Loren for advice. Loren the bad decision maker born in a back water little town most haven't heard of is looked to for guidance from everyone. I'll grant that she has skill with stealth and lying, but outside of that she needs to sit down, be quiet, and be glad they let her come along.

Mystic and the series as a whole are just not for me.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Richard Nixon: The LifeRichard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”The president ‘was an almost completely political animal. He was neither moral nor immoral, but was amoral,’ said Farmer, the civil rights leader….’I don’t think right or wrong entered into it.’

‘Nixon would have been recorded as being a very great president had it not been for the fatal character flaw,’ said Farmer. ‘He did not believe in anything.’”

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I can remember in 1994 when Richard Nixon died that one of my friends, who has been an unrepentant hippy her whole life, said she was going to the Nixon funeral, but only if it was an open casket. She wanted to make sure the SOB was really dead. Nixon certainly inspired this level of animosity, not only in political enemies, but the numerous personal enemies he made over the years for being...well...a dick.

”’When you got into a campaign, especially with a guy like Nixon whose guts we hated, it was easy to get combative. You’re not running against a nice guy. You’re running against a first-class son of a bitch.’”

I didn’t know much about Nixon’s early days in California. John A. Farrell gives some background. The deaths of several members of his family seemed to have a lifetime impact on Nixon. I was more interested in what kind of man he was after he got back from service in WWII. I thought maybe I would see the progression of a brash, idealistic, young man who eventually evolved into the brooding, wounded Darth Vader who resigned in 1974. His opponents, from Jerry Voorhis for the 1946 House seat to the ‘pink lady’ Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 for the Senate seat, were both completely unprepared to face the type of tactics that Nixon was willing to unleash. Winning was everything. There was no sense of decorum in a Nixon campaign. There was no progression, Nixon was as ruthless at the beginning of his career as he was at the end of his career.

I know you are going to be shocked about this, but there were two main staples of Nixon’s campaign tactics. One was to paint any Democrat as soft on communism, thus dubbing Helen Gahagan Douglas as the pink lady. Two was to lie and, when caught in a lie, to lie about ever saying the lie. Then, bludgeon the opponent for using unfair tactics by calling Nixon a liar.

Sound familiar?

When he was campaigning to be Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, he called President Truman a traitor. Which is a *gasp* moment. Where is the line that should never be crossed? Then, he denied saying it. He became furious when reporters started carrying around tape recorders to his events. We have discovered in the current political climate that even getting a politician on tape may not be enough to convince his party followers to condemn him.

I was surprised to learn that Richard Nixon was Tricky Dick Nixon from the first moment he decided to become a politician. There was simply nothing he wouldn’t do to win a campaign. It was all about winning and achieving power. Whatever he had to do to make that happen was not weighed on a moral scale, but was weighed by how much it would help him win and by a calculation of what his chances were to get away with it.

I knew he was diabolical, but underneath it all, I thought maybe there was merit. I’d, over the years, began to give him some credit for being a good statesmen, after office. I considered him a thoughtful writer who seemed to see the world with more objectivity and not through the darkened optics of a warped Nixon lens.

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This is the moment in the speech when Richard is showing how he has the universe by the nuts and how he is going to squeeze until he gets what he wants.

His famous Checkers speech, when he went on the air and defended his use of campaign finances, was that moment in time when his footnote to history could have been smaller. Eisenhower was about to drop him from the ticket as his vice president. This is one of those moments in time where Nixon could explode, casting his boiling vile and deep seated hate for the world in all directions. He could have been the disgruntled civil servant who throws grenades over his shoulder as he walks out the door. This speech was given with such feeling and passion that he brought tears to the eyes of the film crew, not to mention the public.

How does he do that? He doesn’t even like people enough to pull off a speech like that. The only thing I can think is that his adoration for himself overcame his natural loathing for himself long enough for him to save his career. He didn’t want “them” to win.

Escaping these moments, and there are many throughout his career where he should have been politically destroyed, kept enhancing his ego, gave fire to his paranoia, and, ultimately, lead to his spectacular demise.

”’Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ mused Henry II, and a knight seeking royal favor murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket in the cathedral at Canterbury. Did Richard Nixon order every breach of the law? No. But in May 1971 he called for the wiretapping of his Democratic foes. And in June he instructed Haldeman and Colson: ‘You’ve got to really have a sophisticated assault upon the Democrats. Humphrey must be destroyed. Muskie must be destroyed. Teddy Kennedy must be.’ It wasn’t hard for Nixon’s knights to know what the sovereign wanted. Nixon’s mutterings led not to Canterbury, but to Watergate.”

The dubious men who were hired to carry out these clandestined tasks called themselves The Plumbers, but plumbers all over the world should be insulted because of what bumbling fools they turned out to be. Certainly, Nixon did not specifically order everything these idiots attempted to do, but to be frank, Nixon loved the covert nature of their cloak-and-dagger enterprises. He wanted to know details so that he could relish in the belief that he was smarter and craftier than his moron opponents. What sinks him is a White House tape from June 23rd. Oh, yes, the taping setup that would help him write books about his life as president after office. He would have plenty of time to write books, sooner than he thought.

Farrell talks about some interesting things that have been revealed for the first time. I’m not going to go into detail because those are the type of things that encourage people to read the book for themselves, but one particular covert Nixon action is haunting for me because it led to seven more years of war in Vietnam. The cost in blood and money was going to be steep.

I was also really bothered by his selection of Spiro Agnew as vice president. ”The selection of Spiro Agnew revealed Nixon at his worst. It was a cynical nod, a race-baiting wink--a catastrophic blunder. It was Nixon’s first ‘presidential’ decision--the choosing of a running mate--and a disaster.” Nixon referred to Agnew as the ”assassin’s dilemma.” I felt the same way when George H. W. Bush selected Dan Quayle, or how about George W. Bush putting Dick Cheney one heartbeat away from the presidency, or how about the baffling choice of Sarah Palin by John McCain? Are these choices merely hedges against assassination? Nixon was that cynical. I’m not sure these other presidential candidates were, but sometimes I do wonder.

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Dick, if you stare into the camera with enough intense concentration, maybe the world will burst into flames.

Farrell’s writing style is very fluid. He does not become bogged down in minutiae. Certainly, my perspective has shifted once again about one of the more conflicted and controversial figures in American history. Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself, and here we are stuck with another paranoid, delusional, blustering court jester in the presidency. People tell me how boring they find history to be, but they don’t seem to realize that, by reading the past, you are reading the present and the future. It is infinitely fascinating.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

A mystery throwback...or throwaway

The Secret of Chimneys (Superintendent Battle, #1)The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rather silly at times - sometimes intentionally, sometimes not - The Secret of Chimneys is not one of Agatha Christie's finest works. It is, however, an enjoyable enough read for mystery fans who like a throwback.

When a rather dashing young drifter accepts a friend's job on the prospect of quick cash, he gets himself into a deep bit of doo-doo. This murder mystery amongst the upper classes draws in political intrigue at a lord's estate. A random and playfully portrayed cast of characters populate the novel and give it a life that elevates it above the serviceable plot.

It was interesting to read a Christie book with a detective other than Poirot. Superintendent Battle does not figure as prominently in the story as Poirot usually does and Battle doesn't have half the charisma of the diminutive Belgian. The aforementioned dashing young drifter does most of the heavy lifting in that regard, and in this way the book reminded me of Dorothy Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey series, the first book of which came out two years before The Secret of Chimneys. Hm, very suspicious...

With all the evidence laid out before us, I would deduce that what we have here is a perfectly fine read and anyone who's already a fan of Christie's will enjoy it, so I should think.

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Poor Expectations Snatched Away!

Invasion of the Body SnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow, this was waaay better than I expected it to be! Hurray for pleasant surprises!

I expected pure pulp. I figured this was a toss-off, dime-store sci-fi novel that benefited from the success of two film versions. I haven't actually sat down and watched either the 1956 or '78 movies (though I have seen The World's End, the Wright/Pegg loose take on it), so the plot hadn't been fully spoiled and reading the book would provide some surprises and a bit of entertainment. I got that and more!

If Invasion of the Body Snatchers is any indication, Jack Finney was a very competent writer. There's a natural flow to this book. The main character, a doctor who knows all the people in his small Bay Area town, narrates in a marvelously conversational manner. You'll probably like the doc right off and find it as easy to root for him as I did.

And the plot is similarly well-constructed in a way that you immediately are drawn into the story and are pulling for the protagonist and his posse....

I just realized that I'm writing this review in a cagey manner, trying my best to avoid spoilers, such as mentioning that alien beings invade Earth in order to obtain individuals, a sort of invasion of body snatchers, if you will. Yeah, I wouldn't want to give anything away!

Even if you're quite aware of the plot, and how can you not be, you will nonetheless probably find this an enjoyable read. I know I'm quite glad I picked it up!

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Keller's Fedora

Keller's FedoraKeller's Fedora by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After Dot convinces him to come out of retirement for one last job, Keller has to play detective to figure out who the client wants eliminated, his wife's lover. Only things get complicated...

At the end of the last Keller book, I was hoping Block would let his hitman for hire rest. However, now I'm glad he didn't. Keller's Fedora was a fun read.

Keller's Fedora sees Keller buy a new hat and take the train north to bump someone off, leaving his wife and daughter in New Orleans. As with all Keller tales, the joy is in his interactions with Dot and in watching Keller use his ingenuity to get the job done.

Yeah, I sure was glad to see my favorite stamp-collecting hitman again. Block's writing is as crisp as ever, as slick as blood and brains on the head of a hammer. Keller's tender side and relationships with other characters set him apart from other killers for hire.

The case proved to be a tricky one but Keller and his fedora eventually got the job done. The first killer was easy enough and Keller figured out away to clean up the complications later, as he usually does.

Keller's Fedora is quite an enjoyable novella from one of my favorite living crime writers. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera

Amy Brandt
Chrysler Museum of Art
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


This volume is the first comprehensive survey of the work of Tseng Kwong Chi (1950--90), a revered photographer and performance artist of the 1980s. Reproducing more than 100 works by Tseng from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, and including archival materials from his commissions for the Soho Weekly News, the book presents Tseng's best-known self-portrait series, East Meets West, as well as lesser--known works, plus portraits of his friends Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, among others.

My Review

“My photographs are social studies and social comments on Western society and its relationship with the East. [I pose] as a Chinese tourist in front of monuments of Europe, America and elsewhere.”
Tseng Kwong Chi

After reading Keith Haring’s biography by John Gruen, I became increasingly curious about Tseng Kwong Chi, the photographer who documented Keith’s subway drawings and was known for his own gently satirical work, including East Meets West, which features himself in a Mao suit in front of major American and international tourist sites, and his final work, the Expeditionary Series, contemplative photographs taken in the US and Canada and featuring the artist as a diminutive figure dwarfed by the majestic landscape surrounding him. During the Reagan era, the artist had fun photographing influential conservatives for his Moral Majority series.

Tseng Kwong Chi’s work was playful, yet deep and thought-provoking. I enjoyed revisiting his photos of Keith Haring and his work, and the other artists who participated in the East Village 80’s art scene, such as Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Sadly, Tseng Kwong Chi died of AIDS complications in 1990 at the age of 39.

This is a wonderful coffee table book with thick pages and crisp color and black and white photos. I enjoyed the thorough analysis of the artist’s work, and the last story written by his sister, Muna Tseng, which was a glimpse into the artist’s childhood and family life.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


The Long HomeThe Long Home by William Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”He held in his hands a human skull. It was impacted with moss and mud, a salamander curled in an eyesocket, periwinkles clinging like leeches to the worn bone. Bright shards of moss clung to the cranium like perverse green hair. He turned it in his hands. A chunk of the occipital bone had been blown away seemingly by some internal force, the brain itself exploding and breaking the confines of the skull. He turned it again so that it seemed to mock him, its jaws locked in a mirthless grin, the two gold teeth fey and winsome among the slime and lichens.”

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Who did this skull belong to? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Everybody was so busy trying to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads they could spare little time over worrying what a man like Dallas Hardin might be up to. He took over Thomas Hovington’s farm while he was stoved up with some illness that bent his spine like it was a piece of black licorice. Hardin didn’t need a magical staff or the will of God to part the legs of Hovington’s wife, Pearl. She came readily to the task. Hardin also took over the moonshine business, as well.

People talked, sure, but who was going to do anything about it? Hardin was rough cut, like a knot infested piece of yellow pine. ”Hardin’s vulpine face was leaner and more cunning than ever, the cold yellow eyes more reptilian. Or sharklike, perhaps, lifeless and blank save a perpetual look of avarice. And he went through life the way a shark feeds, taking into its belly anything that attracts its attention, sucking it into the hot maw of darkness and drawing nourishment from that which contained it, expelling what did not.”

He was a predator who took what he wanted just to see what someone else would do to keep it. If he was having an issue with a neighbor, everyone was just happy he didn’t have an issue with them. They took wide turns when they walked around Dallas Hardin. Most people were pretty simple in this rural area of Tennessee in the 1940s. William Tell Oliver, who had observed Hardin’s business and personal practices from the shadows among the trees, described a typical person populating this region of Tennessee. ”She had no interest in anything that happened in a book, on the radio, in France or Washington, D.C. Nothing that was not readily applicable to her life. If you can’t eat it, fuck it, or bust it up for stovewood, she’s got no use for it.

Higher ideals, in other words, were not of interest, and it made these people easy to manipulate and even easier to buffalo. Oliver had reached a point in life where he might have spent time pondering the cosmos, but really he just wanted to be left alone to raise his goats and enjoy the peacefulness of a simple existence. When the lad Nathan Winer, to whom Oliver was partial, went to work for Dallas Hardin building a honky tonk that could be stocked with whores and booze, Oliver had a feeling in the marrow of his bones that, sooner or later, somebody was going to have to do something about Dallas.

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Thomas Hovington had a daughter named Amber Rose who was about Nathan’s age. Nathan had never seen anything as saucy and pretty as her, with her nice angles and soft curves. Dallas Hardin had been raising her like a fatted calf, with a mind that someday she would be his. Desire and perversion were twined in a hillbilly tango as Nathan and Dallas squared off. Boy against shark. Nathan had been slinging a hammer all summer, and his forearms were like pieces of molten iron. In a fair fight, Nathan would sling Dallas around like a dry corn stalk and smash him to pieces, but Dallas didn’t fight like that. He’d stack the deck and come at you from your blindside, with darkness slung around his shoulders.

Besides Dallas was focused on what he wanted.
Nathan was understandably distracted.

”The wind sucked through the cracks by the windows and told of a world gone vacant, no one left save these two. He thought of his hands on her throat, of his weight bearing down on her, forcing her legs apart with a knee, sliding himself into her. Dark and nameless specters bore their visions through his mind. He thought of her supine in a shallow grave, her green eyes and the sullen pout of her mouth impacted with earth, the cones of her breasts hard and white as ivory, ice crystals frozen in the red hair under her belly. The rains of winter seeping into her flesh, the seeds of springs sprouting in the cavities of her body.

‘Why you lookin at me like that?’

‘I ain’t.’”

He shore is.

A woman, even if she was a mere girl, would drive a man, especially one still shaking off the last vestiges of boyhood, crazy.

William Tell Oliver could see it all playing out like an old song that always ends the same way. Someone was going to have to do something, and he couldn’t deny that the someone, who was going to have to do something,… was him. ”He knew that the world was wide in its turnings and it was fraught with dark alleyways and pastoral footpaths down which peril lurked with a patience rivaling that of the very old.”

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William Gay has some intense dark eyes, like holes in snow cleaved by icicles.

Simply amazing writing, so lyrical it will make your teeth ache, like you just took a drink of melted snow. I had so many notes of so many great passages that I had a difficult time deciding what had to be shared with my faithful, reading audience and what would have to be found by them when they read the book themselves. I’ve heard wonderful things about William Gay over the years and bought his first two books with his signature adorning the title pages. I’m so glad I did because he departed this world in 2012, taking the rest of those wonderful, electric phrases and exploding, earthy thoughts, which he would have shared with us,... to his grave. This book certainly qualifies as Hillbilly Noir with some soaring Mozart moments.

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Remnant (A Dragonswarm Short Story, #2)Remnant by Aaron Pogue
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dragons rule the world and desperate men will do anything to avoid their wrath... including sacrificing a young woman. At least one man still remains who remembers true justice and he won't allow an innocent to be sacrificed. Rinuld is his name and he is a dragon hunter.

Remnant is a typical fantasy story. A brave man saves a damsel in distress from a beast and those willing to sacrifice her to it. I haven't read the main series so perhaps some useful information was provided about his abilites. Rinuld is a man with two bows and some forgotten magics that have helped him kill dragons.

Remnant is a reasonably entertaining short story about a dragon hunter.

2.5 out of 5 stars

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1) By:S.A. Chakraborty

The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy, #1)The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have always been in love with mythology, legends, and visiting other worlds. I don't really know why but lately stories that reach into the desert sands and the "feel" of 1001 Arabian nights, I have found especially appealing.

The City of Brass is a stunning read, a lush, beautiful world that pops off the page, characters you are automatically invested in, and easily to me, the beginning of a trilogy that I am already itching for part 2.

This book is worth your time, and a great trip for your holidays when you want to get away from the parties and visits and stuff (and you will). I am very glad this was my 50th book of 2017!

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