Labyrinth of Detection
might say that every great book establishes the existence of
two genres, the reality of two norms: that of the genre it transgresses,
which dominated the preceding literature, and that of the genre
it creates. (Todorov 43)
A book goes beyond its author's intentions.
(Borges, Conversations 33)
Detective fiction historically has
led a reader towards discovery and insight when the detective
reveals the solution. Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie have
delighted readers for decades with their captivating detective
stories that reveal the detective's genius in the end. Detective
fiction is defined as a text "whose principal action concerns
the attempt by a specialist investigator to solve a crime and
to bring a criminal to justice" (Porter 5). Edgar Allan Poe
truly invented "traditional" detective fiction as we know it
today in 1841 with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," which focused
on "uncovering the cause of crime," detection, as opposed to
literature's previous emphasis on murder (Porter 22-3). Dennis
Porter reveals the reader's appeal to traditional detective
fiction as being rooted in desire:
That is, [detective fiction]
begins by stimulating desire, proceeds to tease it through a
technique of progressive revelation interrupted by systematic
digression, and finally satisfies it, however unsatisfactorily,
in an end that reveals all. In contrast, the tendency of much
modernist fiction in the twentieth century has been to stimulate
in order not to satisfy. (Porter 245-6)
In reaction to the
reader-satisfying detective fiction, some modernist writers
developed what I call "anti-detective" fiction. Simply put,
in anti-detective fiction, which is devoid of the traditional
reader satisfaction, the detective fails to solve the crime
that the author has presented. As Porter remarks, the anti-detective
does not reaffirm "a hidden order satisfying both the reason
and morality" but contributes to "a core of doubt" (45).
modernist writers who have written various anti-detective texts
are the American Paul Auster and the Argentinean Jorge Luis
Borges. In their anti-detective fiction, Auster and Borges use
the quest of the detective to show the labyrinths of the tragic
human intellect, and they use the failure of that quest to question
the author-function, as well as to show the futility of a search
for the Truth. The detectives in these authors' texts search
for the Truth in order to solve a crime, as in traditional detective
fiction; however, this quest leads them, as anti-detectives,
to their destruction. Both detectives work through a maze, a
labyrinth "the presiding metaphor for human experience" (Porter
251) of information, only to be so engrossed in it as to not
see their own impending destruction. This destruction of the
detective is contrary to the previous "rules" of detective fiction
because "a rule of the genre postulates the detective's immunity"
In Borges' short story "Death and the Compass,"
the failings of the protagonist's intellect lead him to his
own death, illustrating the tragedy of the human intellect.
The protagonist in this story is an obsessive detective named
Erik Lönnrot, who is called upon to solve the murder of a scholar
attending a conference of Talmudic commentators. "Lönnrot believed
himself a pure reasoner, an Auguste Dupin" (Borges 76). Lönnrot
becomes absorbed in studying the victim's books on Jewish mysticism
and decides that the investigation must have a "rabbinical"
explanation. However, the murder is only the first in a series,
with the culprit leaving more and more indications that a Cabalistic
scheme underlies the murders. After a long immersion his own
Cabalistic (Jewish mystical) studies, Lönnrot believes that
he has the case solved. He journeys to the scene of the next
crime, only to find the murderer, Red Scharlach, waiting for
him. Scharlach reveals himself as the adversary who, relying
on Lönnrot's tendency for total absorption in one Truth, has
been manipulating him with Cabalistic clues in order to lure
him to his death. Thus, Erik Lönnrot becomes the last victim
in the series. Erik Lönnrot is so absorbed in his intellectual
exploration that he fails to see any explanation for the murders
outside of that path. Lönnrot's intellect is sound enough to
create the solution, yet wholly inadequate to see outside of
it; it is enough to conspire in his destruction yet insufficient
to prevent it. Hence, the great tragedy of the human intellect.
Lönnrot even insists to the other investigator: "Here we have
a dead rabbi; I would prefer a purely rabbinical explanation,
not the imaginary mischances of an imaginary robber" (Borges
77). He refuses to see any other possible explanation, a tendency
that his foe is counting on.
His enemy, Red Scharlach, is astute
to the tragedy of the human intellect and sets to ensnare Lönnrot
in an absorbing scheme. Fittingly, the word red in Spanish translates
as "net" in English. Triumphantly, Scharlach tells Lönnrot,
"On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces
and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth
around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it
and it is firm" (Borges 85). Even though "the intricate web
in which Borges' anti-Dupin is trapped reveals its diabolic
rationality" (Porter 256), Lönnrot still cannot see outside
of his own explication and insists to Scharlach that he knows
of an even better solution: "In your labyrinth there are three
lines too many [. . .] Scharlach, when in some other incarnation
you hunt me [. . .] Wait for me afterwards at D, two kilometers
from A and C, again halfway between both. Kill me at D, as you
are now going to kill me at Triste-le-Roy" (Borges 87). In the
face of death, Lönnrot's intellect tragically haunts him.
Lönnrot is the perfect example of characters "whose fatal weakness is
a susceptibility to exclusively narrow and rigid patterns of
thought" (Lindstrom 29). This rigid intellect and human propensity
to shortsightedness is representative of the tragedy of the
human intellect, that which leads the detective Lönnrot to his
Similarly, in Auster's novel City of Glass, the protagonist,
a writer turned pseudo-detective, follows a path of "clues"
that only lead to his own destruction. The main character, Daniel
Quinn, is an author of conventional, moderately popular detective
stories. Through a chance event, he is mistaken for "Paul Auster"
(who in the novel is an author mistaken for a detective), and
Quinn becomes involved in what initially seems like a fairly
simple case. He is hired (as "Auster") by Peter and Virginia
Stillman to guard them from Peter's father, who was recently
released from jail. This Peter Stillman Sr. had served 13 years
in prison for abusing his son in a language deprivation experiment
created in order for Stillman Sr. to discover the "original
language of innocence," (as with the Tower of Babel). For seven
years Stillman Sr. kept Peter isolated from human speech and
contact so that Peter could reach the purest language, the language
of God. Now Virginia and Peter fear that he plans to kill them,
and Quinn's job is simply to keep Stillman Sr. away from them.
Soon into his investigation, Quinn realizes that Stillman Sr.
has no intention of harming them, but instead is pursuing an
investigation for a discourse on the establishment of a new
Tower of Babel. When Quinn is troubled by Stillman's odd behavior,
he contacts the "real" Paul Auster, who is unable to help. In
the end, Quinn gets so caught up in his investigation and case
hypothesis that he is destroyed. The unfolding of Quinn's destruction
unfurls in much the same way as with Lönnrot. Quinn reaches
a dead-end in his investigation with the Stillman case, but
he "discovers," or, more precisely, creates, a path to continue
on, a path that leads to his destruction.
"How exactly was he
to proceed? [. . .] He could proceed, then, as he wished." (Auster
171) He proceeds to the Stillmans' apartment to sit outside
and watch them, to continue the job in his own way without having
to contact them. "Quinn stepped across to the other side, found
a spot for himself in a narrow alleyway, and settled in for
the night" (Auster 172). For months, Quinn camps across the
street from their apartment in an alley, thinking that he can
maintain a watch, he can make sure that Stillman Sr. does not
try to come and harm them. After his tightly conserved three
hundred dollars and a few months run out, Quinn "was nowhere
now. He had nothing, he knew nothing, he knew that he knew nothing"
(Auster 159). Looking for a new path for his intellect to follow,
Quinn contacts "Auster" again for help. As Scharlach reveals
Lönnrot's intellectual limits, "Auster" reveals to Quinn that
his intellect has disillusioned him:
"But there is no case. It's all over."
"What are you talking about?"
[. . .]
There was a silence on the other end, and for a moment Quinn felt
that the conversation was over, that he had somehow fallen asleep
and had just now woken up to find the telephone in his hand.
"Stillman jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge," Auster said. "He
committed suicide two and a half months ago." (Auster 187)
His path now obscured, Quinn tries to return to his apartment but
finds someone else living in it and all of his belongings gone.
He goes to the Stillmans' next and finds the apartment open
and empty. With his red notebook, he settles into a room; without
moving, he stays there, waking only to write in the red notebook,
writings mostly unconcerned with the Stillman case, and to unquestioningly
eat the anonymous trays of food left for him. The narrator tells
the reader that the last sentence in the red notebook reads:
"What will happen when there are no pages in the red notebook?"
(Auster 200), and that no trace is heard again from Quinn.
In Quinn's pursuit, as with other anti-detectives, "detection becomes
a quest for identity, as the mystery outside releases the mystery
inside the detective" (Sorapure 77). As Quinn assumes the identity
of the detective "Auster," he loses himself in his intellectual
blunderings on the obscured search for clues, and he is ultimately
destroyed. The detective failures of Quinn and Lönnrot mean
the destruction of not only themselves but also the author-function.
In traditional detective fiction, the main characters "(the
detective and his friend the narrator) were by definition immunized:
nothing could happen to them" (Todorov 47). The detective is
traditionally given the same power as the "author," because
the reader expects the detective to reveal (or confirm) the
Truth. The failure of the detective in anti-detective fiction
destroys that power and puts into question the authority of
the author-function. Madeleine Sorapure reiterates that: "No
doubt, the satisfaction of reading traditional detective fiction
[. . .] derives from the implicit assurance that detective and
reader will eventually ascend to the position of the author
[. . .]. Anti-detective fiction, however, denies this satisfaction
and instead portrays the detective's frustrated pursuit of authorial
As well, the use of multiple unreliable narrators
further questions the author-function because the information
the author presents is no longer reliable. The "author-function,"
a phrase coined by Michel Foucault in the essay "What is an
Author?," is an authoritative persona created by society. Culturally,
the author has gained an intellectual domination over the reader
and as long as literature belongs to the author, it cannot belong
to the reader; the author-function limits how the reader discovers
information, since the author holds the key to literary power
and understanding. Literature has been relegated to a place
where the individual author "owns" their texts as "a marked
writing [that is] characteristically the 'expression' of a person's
'mind' or 'psyche' whose essential identity scrawls across a
page and declares its imaginative 'ownership' of these self-revealing
and self-constituting lines" (Bové 63). Ideas no longer hold
collective ownership and origin; "the author" has been given
the singular imagination to impart "the word." However, Foucault
maintains against this author-function: "In writing the point
is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to
pin a subject within language; it is rather a question of creating
a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears"
The writing subject disappears, and thus the author-function
is destroyed, when the author utilizes multiple and/or unreliable
narrators, as Borges and Auster do. As well, since the detective
is culturally relegated to the same power position as the author,
when the anti-detective fails and does not maintain authority
over the reader, the author-function has also failed. A story
such as "Death and the Compass" destroys the author-function
because of Lönnrot's detective failure. "The end [of the story]
offers not the assertion of mastery and a return to order but
the surprise of impotence. Borges's detective is not and never
will be adequate to his investigative task" (Porter 256). If
traditionally the detective is given the same authoritative
position as the author, Lönnrot's failure as a detective undermines
that authority and the power position can be returned to the
reader. Additionally, the criminal in this story, Scharlach,
acts as the reader who destroys the author-function, the power
position of the detective. Scharlach reads the clues better
than Lönnrot does, as when he taunts, "I foresaw that you would
add the missing point" (Borges 86). As the reader, Scharlach
also understands Lönnrot better than the detective does himself;
his role as a criminal is to think outside of himself and keep
more power than the detective that hunts him. Scharlach points
out to Lönnrot: "I have premeditated everything, Erik Lönnrot,
in order to attract you to the solitudes of Triste-le-Roy" (Borges
86). Scharlach's power over the detective further destroys the
detective's position of power, and inadvertently, the power
of the author-function.
In another anti-detective story by Borges,
"The Garden of Forking Paths," the reader encounters an unreliable
narrative, which undermines the authority of the author (or
the narrator), who in traditional detective fiction can be and
is trusted. The reader does not know who is presenting the story
and for what reason. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is an account
of one Dr. Yu Tsun who possesses a supposedly crucial war "Secret"
(Borges 20) and who has to find a way to communicate this secret
to the right people before he is killed. However, the way the
narrator presents this story undermines history and undermines
the validity of Tsun's account. The first two paragraphs of
the story read:
On page 22 of Liddell Hart's History of World
War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban
line by thirteen British divisions [. . .] planned for the 24th
of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the
29th. The torrential rains, Capitan Liddell Hart comments, caused
this delay, an insignificant one, to be sure. The following
statement, dictated, reread and signed by Dr. Yu Tsun, former
professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, throws an
unsuspected light over the whole affair. The first two pages
of the document are missing. (Borges 19)
The reader is immediately
encouraged to question the validity of this account by the questionable
narrator. The author-function is disappeared when the reliability
of the author and the narrator are debunked. The reader thus
has the authorial power to interpret this information as s/he
wishes. Similarly, from the outset the narrator of City of Glass
also prepares the reader for the impending failure of the detective
and for the inevitable destruction of the author-function. The
The detective is the one who looks, who listens,
who moves through this morass of objects and events in search
of the thought, the idea that will pull all these things together
and make sense of them. In effect, the writer and the detective
are interchangeable. (Auster 15)
The narrator is telling the
reader: "The author and the detective are one in the same,"
and the reader can assume that if the detective fails (which
he will), the author's power, the author-function, will also
fail. Anti-detective fiction such as City of Glass continually
frustrates and breaks down the knowledge base, and thus authority,
of its detective:
The author function in detective fiction provides
the basis on which detective and reader can move with assurance
through the text; positioned beyond the events of the texts,
the author, in effect, guarantees that there is such a position.
City of Glass, however, insistently frustrates the efforts of
its author-characters, [the detective, for one], to achieve
an author's perspective on the events in which they are engaged.
The detective is denied any chance at success
and is doomed to take the author-function down with him when
The author-function is further destroyed in City of
Glass when the author "disappears within a multilayered maze
of fictional embodiments, the author-characters" (Sorapure 84).
City of Glass is described by Sorapure as a "meta-anti-detective"
story. She classifies the story as such because several of the
characters are each, at the same time, authors and detectives:
"author-characters who take on the role of detective are forced
to radically revise their understanding of both authorship and
detection" (Sorapure 73). Quinn, the author of detective stories
(who publishes his detective stories under the name of William
Wilson, an Edgar Allan Poe character, and who assumes the name
of the detective "Paul Auster"), records his detective discoveries
in a red notebook, which the narrator of the story (a writer
friend of the thought-to-be-detective "Paul Auster," who is
also an author) delivers to the reader as the anti-detective
novel City of Glass. The readers immediately feel doubtful of
the detective story they have just read when they read this
statement from the narrator at the end:
The account of this
period is less full than the author would have liked. But information
is scarce, and he has preferred to pass over in silence what
could not be definitely confirmed. Since this story is based
entirely on facts, the author feels it his duty not to overstep
the bounds of the verifiable, to resist at all costs the perils
of invention. Even the red notebook, which until now has provided
a detailed account of Quinn's experiences, is suspect. We cannot
say for certain what happened to Quinn during this period, for
it is at this point in the story that he began to lose his grip.
This narrator and the information he provides,
the reader concludes in the end, are unreliable. The author-function
loses all power over the reader when the entire story is qualified
in the end as one that "could not be definitely confirmed."
The narrator further confirms the destruction of the detective
at this time "for it is at this point in the story that [the
detective and the author?] beg[ins] to lose his grip." The role
of the detective and the author are further linked when the
detective loses grip on himself and at the same time the author-function
loses grip on the reader. The reader expects detective fiction
to be based on concrete facts and expects all that the detective
reveals, in the end, to be the truth, which it is not. Since
the reader is disillusioned with the power of both the detective
and the author in the end, the reader turns back to the story
to look back over the text and realizes that little of it is
based on stable ground.
In both "Death and the Compass" and
City of Glass, a search for the Truth leads to the destruction
of the detective, who decides early on what will lead to that
truth. The reader questions whether Truth exists and, if so,
whether it could ever be found. This search for truth is explored
in the essay "On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" (1873),
in which Friedrich Nietzsche largely details the inherent human
drive to arrive at a truth at the end of every road. He illustrates
the kind of society humans have created, one in which a predetermined
societal Domain is the foundation for all "truth." Nietzsche
also outlines the terms "truth" and "lies" that are set by that
Domain, particularly in regards to how language has created
a "truth" from illusions or metaphors. First, Nietzsche describes
how humans arrived at a search for truth. According to Nietzsche,
the search for truth is not necessarily a rudimentary trait
as humans "are deeply immersed in illusions and in dream images;
their eyes merely glide over the surface of things and see 'forms.'
Their senses nowhere lead to truth" (54).
Humans would not seek
a "truth," then, if it were not for pride (perhaps the ego),
which developed out of the human capacity to learn and to know.
Pride accompanies human "knowing" and brings with it deception,
which is explained by Nietzsche as the false manner in which
people live. This deception, according to Nietzsche is so inherent,
is such "the rule and the law" in humans, that "there is almost
nothing which is less comprehensible than how an honest and
pure drive for truth could have arisen among them" (54). Human
senses don't lead towards truth, but we have created it anyway.
Truth was invented then, according to Nietzsche, in language.
Man wants to exist peacefully "with the herd," and therefore
"a uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things,
and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first
laws of truth" (54). Therefore the domination of language led
to the establishment of "truth." Truths, according to Nietzsche,
are nothing but illusory metaphors that society has created
with language. Nietzsche further reveals this Domain when he
explains that humans are driven towards truth and wish for "the
pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth" (54). Truth
is an easy and peaceful state of existence. Nietzsche also shows
how it is then not pure deception people necessarily hate but
the consequences of particular deceptions; humans avoid not
the act of lying but the end result of harmful lies. Man has
created this "truth," a linguistic conviction, because it is
an easy, comfortable status.
Detectives are traditionally applauded
in society for their quest for and preservation of truth. The
Nietzschean anti-detectives' failures, however, reveal the futility
of the quest for truth. No one "truth" exists. Detectives as
author-figures reinforce the idea that truth only exists because
language does. Authors work in language; therefore, the detective's
work is a linguistic act to forge truth out of illusion. The
anti-detective exposes the futility of that act. In "Death and
the Compass," the "truths" that Lönnrot sees on the pages and
reads in the clues are dubious, and what he sees as the truth,
as the answer or the solution to the crimes, only leads him
to his death. When the murderer leaves a clue at each crime
spot, "The first letter of the Name has been uttered," Lönnrot
takes to reading into that clue such that he finds in his readings
that "God has a secret name," and further discovers "the virtues
and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable
name of God" (Borges 78). Lönnrot is obsessed that the truths
behind these crimes lay in religious facts, and the reader is
swept up in that same theory until Scharlach reveals that the
information was conjured and manipulated in order to lure in
Lönnrot's intellect (Borges 85-6). The reader is left feeling
that the search for the truth is futile and destructive because
no real truth exists and if you try to find it, you will only
lead yourself towards destruction. The traditional detective
"works to restore order and truth" (Sorapure 81-2); however,
the anti-detective reveals the futility of that endeavor.
In City of Glass, Quinn has just enough perspective to discern
the absence of truth in detection: "Much later, when he was
able to think about the things that happened to him, he would
conclude that nothing was real except chance" (Auster 7). In
this story, the reader is all the more doubtful when the truth-base
of the detective "facts" begins to break down. For instance,
Stillman Sr. reveals in one conversation with Quinn that he
made up the "proof" that is in his book, the book on which he
based his experiments on Peter (Auster 125). The reader begins
to see that Quinn's investigation is full of deceptive holes.
Quinn drops hints to the reader that he may not be working on
solid ground. He admits that: "There was nothing he could do
now that would not be a mistake. Whatever choice he made [.
. .] would be arbitrary, a submission to chance. Uncertainty
would haunt him to the end" (Auster 90), and later that truth
eludes him: "There was no way to know: not this, not anything"
(91). An author of detective fiction, Quinn begins to realize
that the stories he had written were not based in the realities,
the truths, of the real world. Detection could never work like
it does in the stories, because that type of solid truth does
not exist in reality. He has been playing a game the entire
time: "Little by little, Quinn began to feel cut off from his
original intentions, and he wondered now if he had not embarked
on a meaningless project" (Auster 96). This comment gives the
reader a feeling as if the entire quest is a farce. This reader
hunch is confirmed further when the "Auster" character subtly
reveals that there truly may not be truth in any part of the
story. The author of the story "Auster" tells Quinn about an
essay he's writing about the Quixote and says:
In my opinion,
Don Quixote was conducting an experiment. He wanted to test
the gullibility of his fellow men. Would it be possible, he
wondered, to stand up before the world and with the utmost conviction
spew out lies and nonsense? [. . .] In other words, to what
extent would people tolerate blasphemies if they gave them amusement?
The answer is obvious, isn't it? To any extent. (Auster 154)
And then "Auster" sits there looking at Quinn, extremely bemused.
"The man was obviously enjoying himself, but the precise nature
of that pleasure eluded Quinn" (Auster 155). This subtle revelation
puts the reality of, the truth behind, the detective's "facts"
in question. The reader is left feeling that Quinn was being
tricked and that he fell for the gullibility test. There is
no straight answer; there is no truth, no clean, neat solution,
to the mystery of this anti-detective story.
suggested by the text of City of Glass, also implies that what
the author knows and withholds from the reader is not the redeeming
truth the solution which puts the mystery to rest but instead
the fact that the whole thing is a sham, built on nothing, with
Auster representing "Auster" constructing an elaborate hoax.
The truths in which the reader thinks the story's
reality is grounded are slowly taken away in this anti-detective
story, the truths are slowly dropped to the floor like articles
of clothing. When this disrobing leads to destruction, it is
futile to try to put the clothes back on. This striptease, the
shedding of clothing (or of truths), is illuminated by Roland
Barthes when he states that:
The end of the striptease is then
no longer to drag into the light a hidden depth, but to signify,
through the shedding of an incongruous and artificial clothing,
nakedness as a natural vesture of woman, which amounts in the
end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of flesh. (86)
nakedness, a human state of innocence, is illuminated in anti-detective
fiction as the human state devoid of "truths." It is the state
of being that Stillman Sr. sought to find for language, and
it is the state readers find themselves in after reading these
masterpieces. "The pleasures [anti-detective fiction] authors
offer are associated with the experience of awe and of still
unsatisfied desire. If, as has been suggested here, detective
stories traditionally take the form of a striptease, in [anti-detective
fiction] every garment that falls discloses new and unexpected
garments. In [these] stories the promise of pleasure persists
beyond the end because the final G-string never falls" (Porter
259). These pleasures are heightened for the reader when Auster
and Borges reveal the failures of a detective in order to disrobe
the tragedy of the human intellect, to strip down the power
of the author-function, and to leave the illusory metaphor of
truth shivering naked in the middle of the room.
Auster, Paul. City of Glass. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Jorge Luis. "Death and the Compass." Trans. Donald A. Yates.
Labyrinths. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E. Irby. New York:
New Direction, 1962.
---. "The Garden of Forking Paths." Trans.
Donald A. Yates. Labyrinths. Ed. Donald A. Yates and James E.
Irby. New York: New Direction, 1962.
---. Interview. Twenty-Four
Conversations with Borges. Ed. Roberto Alifano. Housatonic,
MA: Lascaux, 1984.
Bové, Paul A. "Discourse." Critical Terms
for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Letricchia and Thomas McLaughlin.
Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.
Foucault, Michel. "What is an
Author?" The Critical Tradition. 2nd ed. Ed. David H. Richter.
Boston: Bedford, 1998.
Lindstrom, Naomi. Jorge Luis Borges:
A Study of Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
"On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense." The Continental
Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Clive Cazeaux. London: Routledge, 2000.
Porter, Dennis. "Antidetection." The Pursuit of Crime: Art and
Ideology in Detective Fiction. New Haven: Yale UP, 1981.
Madeleine. "The Detective and the Author: City of Glass." Beyond
the Red Notebook: Essays on Paul Auster. Ed. Dennis Barone.
Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Todorov, Tzvetan. "The
Typology of Detective Fiction." The Poetics of Prose. Ithaca:
Cornell UP, 1977.
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