More On Mycroft

For a moment, forget all of the “character business” we know about Mycroft and think of him in context of the Canonical structure.  What is Mycroft’s role and purpose in the Canon?  Is he a major or minor character?   Is he essential to understanding something about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson? Is he simply interesting but not essential? If Mycroft was not included in the Canon, would we notice his absence?

Consider what Sherlock tells us: 1) Mycroft is older; 2) Mycroft has greater powers than Sherlock; 3) Mycroft is even more intellectually powerful and ascetic than Sherlock; 4) Everything concerning Mycroft is static whereas everything about Sherlock is dynamic; Mycroft is ennui and Sherlock is energy.

Is Mycroft a literary device to illuminate Sherlock? What is Watson’s opinion of Mycroft, or does he have one?

Your thoughts . . . .?

18 Replies to “More On Mycroft”

  1. Watson’s opinions on Mycroft are rather opaque. We have four stories in which he is mentioned (GREE, FINA, EMPT, BRUC) and only two in which he’s present (GREE, BRUC). Watson is impressed by his resemblance to Holmes and in his size (” His body was absolutely corpulent, but his face, though massive, had preserved something of the sharpness of expression which was so remarkable in that of his brother. His eyes, which were of a peculiarly light watery gray, seemed to always retain that far-away, introspective look which I had only observed in Sherlock’s when he was exerting his full powers.”[GREE]) He does seem to have evolved a tiny bit in Watson’s mind: ” Heavily built and massive, there was a suggestion of uncouth physical inertia in the figure, but above this unwieldy frame there was perched a head so masterful in its brow, so alert in its steel-gray, deep-set eyes, so firm in its lips, and so subtle in its play of expression, that after the first glance one forgot the gross body and remembered only the dominant mind.” (BRUC). The eyes go from watery to steel and his dominant mind comes to the fore over the corpulent body with the flipper seal hands.

    He maybe even a bit smarter in BRUC than in GREE. Mycroft, perhaps only due to with his unfamiliarity with criminal investigatory techniques and proud of his advertising results, suggests going to visit J. Davenport in Brixton to get more backstory. “”My dear Mycroft, the brother’s life is more valuable than the sister’s story.” By the time of BRUC, he has a firm grasp of what to do, just not the energy to do it. (“Why do you not solve it yourself, Mycroft? You can see as far as I.” “Possibly, Sherlock. But it is a question of getting details. Give me your details, and from an armchair I will return you an excellent expert opinion. But to run here and run there, to cross-question railway guards, and lie on my face with a lens to my eye – it is not my métier.”)

    This may have to do with his rise in rank from “audits the books in some of the Government departments” to being on occasion the British Government. Now the rise in rank is a metaphorical one for Watson and the reader, although my personal theory is that Watson knew of Mycroft’s governmental role in GREE “I did not know you quite so well in those days.” Twattle! After seven years of living together? It seems more likely that Holmes informed him of the truth in 1888 but was prohibited from publishing it until 1908 when BRUC saw light int the Strand. Perhaps Mycroft had retired by then.

    As described Mycroft could have be a major figure in the Canon, providing more mysteries touching on government and Empire, but the fact is he is a minor character whose absence we indeed would not notice. He not the ubiquitous presence Mark Gatiss is in BBC’s “Sherlock” and not the behind-the-scenes power that Sherlockians like to sometimes imagine. A skillful literary agent could have come up with another way to preserve the Baker Street room during the Great Hiatus (Watson using his Strand income to keep the rooms as a type of shrine, for example).

  2. I’m not sure how necessary Mycroft is, but I am glad he is there. I like that Mycroft’s presence tells us that our Holmes is not a freak of nature, but is part of a family–a family that shares extraordinary skills and abilities. I’ve always thought it wonderful that Mycroft drove the carriage for Watson in FINA. So–although the brothers do not physically see other often, obviously they are still there for each other when it matters. I think having Mycroft makes Sherlock Holmes more real and human– for lack of better words.

  3. Thank you, “Pippin” and “Gwen” for these insightful and fascinating interpretations of the “Mycroft Experience.” Much to ponder.

    Do other Members have thoughts on Mycroft? We seem to have found a responsive chord in the several strings that have emerged.

    1. To me, the entire canon would not be the same without Mycroft, mysterious though Watson would make him. The stories and novels would be lessen in subtle ways and, if you will, less comforting “where it is always 1895” and I settle in for a good evening’s read. I find him a definitely present throughout the canon, even if he is not explicitly mentioned. He has Sherlock’s, Watson’s, and my “back” throughout. He is there whenever need arises, he can figure anything out given enough data and details, and the riffs he and Sherlock play with each other (for example, the man in the street with the books and rattle) are humorous, fun, and very instructive. I like the greater presence of Mycroft in the BBC series, because it brings into the foreground what is left in the background but definitely present, to me, in the canon. My thought is that Sherlock consults him more frequently than is mentioned by Watson, undoubtedly due to protecting Mycroft’s privacy and ever-widering scope of responsibility and knowledge. He is not a minor character in the canon; his described large size is a good metaphor of his presence and influence.

      1. Well Said “Daisy.” I agree totally. Mycroft was always the Great Defender, not only of Holmes and Watson, but of England. One could go so far as to say that it is Mycroft who is the positive counterpart to Moriarty’s evil, with Holmes acting as the agent of justice. Mycroft seems to be the string-puller; some might say, the Puppet Master.

      2. I do not have much to bring to the overall debate because I think some very great points have been made already, but I just wanted to chime in with my agreement that I, too, enjoy the grater presence of Mycroft in the BBC series.

        Although Mycroft only has a couple major appearances in the Canon, I love how further adventures and interpretations in the century that has followed takes a fascination in him. In “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” Mycroft reveals his Diogenes club to be something quite extraordinary and the idea of him at the head of an early MI5 seemed to become more prevalent since then. And while the proto-MI5 idea seems a bit of a stretch, it is not out of nowhere – the Bruce-Partington Plans makes for a fantastic espionage story in its own right. BBC Sherlock certainly latched on to that idea of this particular Mycroft – in no small part because there seems to be no greater fan of “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” than the BBC Sherlock writer and actor, Mark Gatiss. In addition, there is a book series by Kim Newman (of “Professor Moriarty: The Hound of d’Ubervilles” fame) that plays with the idea of the Diogenes Club being something of this nature.

        Even if this route is not take and one holds true to the rotund and lethargic Mycroft, so many interpretations seem to relish the idea of presenting him into a story. There’s always an air of mystery to him – one wonders if there is more or less to him then what the good Doctor presents to us. Some of the actors who have played him have been extraordinary and there have been some Canonical stories that – upon adaption – shift to accommodate his monumental figure and, at those times, that may or may not serve as a great benefit to the telling of the story.

        So yes, I like seeing Mycroft in the BBC Series. He’s a good foil to his brother and, as with the Canon, he draws new and exciting facets out of Sherlock Holmes.

  4. I hate to be a contrarian, especially as I too like Mycroft, but taking a Doylean view, I just don’t see ACD thinking Mycroft is all that important to the Canon. He is introduced in GREE as one of those dreamer geniuses who has little impact on the world at large–the opposite of Holmes; while perhaps second to Mycroft in powers of observation, Holmes has a great impact on the world at large.

    If the Canon had stopped at 26 stories (I find it always helpful to remember that STUD was a stand-alone, SIGN is what would be called in Hollywood a reboot; the Strand series to end at six, then twelve; to end after the next twelve [Memoirs], HOUN a stand-alone reminiscence, Return a final thirteen and His Last Bow seven stories published irregularly over a decade–with VALL a stand-alone novel somewhere in the middle–and LAST to truly be the last), the Mycroft we would have would be this: “What is to me a means of livelihood is to him the merest hobby of a dilettante. He has an extraordinary faculty for figures, and audits the books in some of the Government departments. Mycroft lodges in Pall Mall, and he walks round the corner into Whitehall every morning and back every evening. From year’s end to year’s end he takes no other exercise, and is seen nowhere else, except only in the Diogenes Club, which is just opposite his rooms.” A minor government official too lazy to confirm his own deductions or even to move more than a quarter-mile in the course of a day. Absolutely corpulent with a far-away, introspective expression and seal flipper hands. A man who seems inordinately proud of traveling, by hansom no doubt, the small distance from Pall Mall to Baker Street, what any other self-respecting Londoner would take for granted and not have given a second thought to.

    Yes, when his brother’s life was in danger, he could bestir himself to drive a cab (and I will admit, no mean feat to do well and at high speed in busy city environs), but the man of GREE would probably require three day’s bed rest to recover.

    Doyle did think enough of the character after 1893 to, in 1908, have him evolve from a dilettante accountant to an important government official (“You would also be right in a sense if you said that occasionally he is the British Government.”), but in BRUC, part of a story collection so slight Doyle had to take CARD out of mothballs to make His Last Bow large enough to print. Doyle never mentioned him again–see DYIN. With all due respect, Buttons, I cannot see one passage in the Canon that can justify the assessment of Mycroft the string-puller or Puppet-Master.

    In fact, the statement of Mycroft “as” the British Government can be seen in the context of Holmes’ next statement: “Well, his position is unique. He has made it for himself. There has never been anything like it before, nor will be again. He has the tidiest and most orderly brain, with the greatest capacity for storing facts, of any man living. The same great powers which I have turned to the detection of crime he has used for this particular business. The conclusions of every department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange, the clearing-house, which makes out the balance. All other men are specialists, but his specialism is omniscience. We will suppose that a Minister needs information as to a point which involves the Navy, India, Canada, and the bimetallic question; he could get his separate advices from various departments upon each, but only Mycroft can focus them all, and say offhand how each factor would affect the other. They began by using him as a short-cut, a convenience; now he has made himself an essential. In that great brain of his everything is pigeonholed, and can be handed out in an instant. Again and again his word has decided the national policy. He lives in it. He thinks of nothing else save when, as an intellectual exercise, he unbends if I call upon him and ask him to advise me on one of my little problems.” Mycroft is occasionally the British Government in the sense of “his word has decided the national policy”, not because he’s the original “M” of a proto-MI6. He is more Babbage machine than spymaster: more input to higher ups than someone who would put that input into action.

    If Mycroft didn’t exist, no one would miss him. He is not essential to any story he’s in. That doesn’t mean I don’t like him, but like Mrs. Hudson, he’s a character who plays larger in the reader’s head than on the page.

  5. Excellent perspective. Well-reasoned with ample supporting evidence. Thank you!

    1. Pippin, your comments are so good–easy to follow, reasoned, thoughtful. You have given me a new perspective on Mycroft, Doyle, and the canon. And, yes, I agree that if Doyle had never mentioned Mycroft, we would not miss him, as we do not miss other possible characters that are never mentioned. That said, I rather think of Mycroft as similar to all the untold tales mentioned throughout the canon. At the most basic level, they certainly pique interest and imagination. Of course, then, those who don’t mind pastiches have hundreds more stories to read.
      Mycroft piques interest and imagination also in my Sherlockian world, and I read the Michael Kurland books. So the canon, for me, is much richer for his presence.

  6. Mycroft may not be necessary to any story’s plot, but we would definitely miss him if he were not in the canon because his absence would fundamentally change our perception of Holmes. It doesn’t matter what Doyle intended or how important he thought Mycroft was to the stories—what matters is what the character of Mycroft actually does to reveal something of Holmes’s character and to provide us with a way of relating to Holmes. Without Mycroft, we would lose something of our knowledge of who Holmes is…

    For example, Holmes’s admission that Mycroft’s powers are greater than his own puts his ego in the proper perspective. Despite incidents where Holmes calls himself an “ass” (BRUC) or a “fool” (HOUN, SOLI, CREE) and despite his failure in YELL, if we leave Mycroft out of the equation, we can never really be sure if Holmes always sees himself as the smartest person in the room or not. We don’t know if he could ever recognize someone with greater powers than his own. The fact that he CAN and DOES tells us a lot about his character. It makes him more human—more likeable.

    As Margie stated so well, the simple act of giving Holmes a big brother makes him appear more human, especially to those readers who have lived in an older sibling’s shadow. And when that big brother is drawn as static, unenergetic, omniscient, and rather nebulous, Holmes begins looking more and more like an actual human being and less like a myth because HIS BROTHER BECOMES THE MYTH.

    In regard to Mycroft’s job in the British government, I’d say a “specialty in omniscience” pretty much guarantees he knows political and military secrets. After all, “The conclusions of EVERY department are passed to him, and he is the central exchange…” This means “his word” has not only “decided national policy,” but it also must impact military operations and foreign intelligence gathering, especially if “everything is pigeonholed” in his “great brain.” What government wouldn’t take advantage of such omniscience to further its military and covert foreign operations? I doubt they would stop with trade agreements and tariffs. Mycroft doesn’t need to exert any physical energy to be guiding secret operations.

    So, Mycroft is something of a mystery to us because he is rarely mentioned and his powers are described as superhuman, yet he’s the brother of Sherlock Holmes—an amazing man we know much more about. The overall effect of Mycroft’s character, then, is to create a higher, more enigmatic power than Holmes, which results in Holmes becoming a little less mysterious and a little more like us. Thus, in the end, Mycroft’s presence in the canon might be one of the reasons Sherlock Holmes has appeared very real to many people, and it definitely makes us love Sherlock just a little bit more.

  7. I can’t disagree with the emotional arguments both Daisy and Faith make, especially as I do agree with some of them. Of course, I was answering Buttons queries in a “facts only” way, leaving my heart out of the equation. I am reminded of Vincent Starrett’s excellent essay on Mrs. Hudson. It captured an emotional truth, even though it was created almost purely of whole cloth.

    The contrasts of the two brothers, is a very good point, Faith, but one which could be done with a non-sibling. (Do to an extent with Professor Moriarty, who, I submit, would be missed if he didn’t exist.) And while Mycroft’s omniscience extended to the political and military, it seems unlikely that powerful politicians and soldiers would defer–give up any of their power and influence–to the scion of “country squires”. There is nothing to indicate that Mycroft was nothing more than a single man who created his own niche. He has no “Archie Goodwin” to do the leg work and supply the details, just Holmes.

  8. I have never had any literary character analysis of mine called an “emotional argument” before, Pippin. When I taught English Lit at Bradley University, I would ask my students to analyze how writers put characters together, including how minor characters are used to develop dynamic protagonists. In order to “draw” a dynamic character, a talented author will use many tools to “sharpen the lines” of that character, including the use of contrasting static characters to highlight the humanity of him or her. It’s a technique that creates more believable main characters—protagonists whom readers admire and want to know. It’s one of the elements of good literature.

    The main point of my analysis was that, whether Doyle intended it or not, Mycroft’s character has such an effect. Sometimes Holmes’s amazing powers make him seem “larger than life,” and by including a static sibling character who is even larger (intellectually and physically) and more mysterious (to the point of “omniscience” no less), Doyle maintains our fascination with Holmes’s amazing intellect while simultaneously bringing him closer to us. The mere presence of Mycroft’s character in the canon does for Holmes what a piece of black paper does when it is suddenly placed behind a white image. It makes the white image more defined—sharper, crisper…more real.

    It doesn’t matter whether or not this can be done with a non-sibling. The point is that it IS done with a sibling in the canon. No other character does what Mycroft does for Holmes. Moriarty is an adversary worthy of Holmes. Of course he is necessary because we do not always want to see Holmes matched against antagonists who are intellectually beneath him. Moriarty helps define the magnitude of Holmes’s gifts and his heroism (e.g., Holmes is willing to give up his life to rid society of Moriarty), but in doing so, Moriarty elevates Holmes to hero status, while Mycroft’s presence keeps Holmes’s powers from becoming almost mythical.

    Though she appears in more stories, I would argue Mrs. Hudson is not as important as Mycroft to a reader’s perception of Holmes. Her “genuine regard” for him is seen in her concern for him in DYIN and in her willingness to help in EMPT, but this regard is at least partly due to her “awe” of him and to his chivalry toward her. Besides, Holmes’s powers elicit “awe” and a willingness to help in Watson as well. It’s Mycroft’s character that tempers that “awe” and brings Holmes’s character into the realm of possible existence, giving the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief” a firmer footing.

    As for Mycroft’s role in the government, politicians and soldiers would never have to give up any “power or influence” with him at the center of things. I’ve seen enough of institutional game-playing firsthand to know that the people who appear to be in power often get their ideas, plans, and direction from others in the organization and present these as their own. Mycroft doesn’t have to have the title or the power to be the one who actually runs things. He’s not the kind of character who would care about notoriety, prestige, or power anyway. The people in power would undoubtedly use a mind like his to benefit themselves, and I guarantee that everyone involved in the inner workings of the government would know who was really running the show, even if none of them ever admitted it.

    1. Faith, I think your analysis is spot-on and in the main I agree with you. However, in answering Buttons queries, I have come to the conclusion that he is a minor character whose absence would not be noticed by the reader. I base this on the fact that Mycroft can be easily written out of any story he appears in without materially affecting the story or plot. Mr. Melas and Violet Westbury, could be the clients of Holmes; John from TWIS or some newly created trusted flunky could have driven Watson’s cab in FINA, Watson could have preserved the Baker Street rooms himself. Mycroft’s role as sometimes the British Government is never utilized or hinted at in any story besides BRUC.

      Your point about contrasting static characters to dynamic ones is compelling, but in considering Holmes in the whole of the Canon that I think that Doyle created a fully three-dimensional character. Mycroft is not an essential ingredient, but icing on the cake. We would still have the Holmes we know right now, maybe a little less rich to the palate but filling nonetheless. That’s my opinion.

      Your point on the politics of politics is also well taken and can work the other way–someone without title or power can be easily frozen out from gaining them by those with them. Mycroft’s gifts could be used to benefit the powerful, that fact known by the cognoscenti and still be frozen out of the inner circle. There is no evidence in the Canon that Mycroft was a hidden power, the first “M”, or had the ear of the Queen. What little we know, and it is less facts than Holmes interpretation of the facts, are tea leaves. Read anyway you want. If I was a pastiche writin’ man, I’d know how I’d interpret them. I’m with you, Buttons. Doyle didn’t do much with the character, but that shouldn’t stop the future finders of battered tin boxes.

      I knew that “emotional” would be seen as a loaded term, but I didn’t know how else to succinctly put it, and hoped you know what I meant. John Weber in his brilliant chronology “Under the Darkling Sky” lays out the compelling evidence that HOUN takes place from October 2 through 20 1900. But where does he actually place it? “Suffice to say that, to adapt a line delivered by Humphrey Bogart in the film Key Largo, ‘When your head says one thing, and your heart says another, your head always loses.’ That is the case with me. Against all reason, I cannot help but feel that this case belongs properly in 1889, even though I realized that 1900 should be correct.” We Sherlockians can be always-1895, love-story-adding-to-Euclid types and its easy to say, “Of course, Mycroft is a major character; of course we’d miss him.” Sometime love stories and Euclid could be the two great tastes that go great together. not, I feel, in this case. Sorry if you thought I meant your excellent critical analysis was anything other than an excellent critical analysis. I’m not sure if even now I made what I meant clear.

      While I agree in the main with you, and have some minor quibbles (there are plenty of de-mythifying moments in the Canon–“Norbury” for one–that Mycroft’s role in that area is a repartition, quality notwithstanding), I don’t think he’s essential to the Canon and while the Holmes/Mycroft dynamic is fascinating I don’t think it’s essential to an understanding of Holmes.

  9. This is wonderful! Absolutely brilliant analyses, point and counterpoint, and supported proofs for all positions. This is what made the study of literature so rich and so expansive for one’s thought processes. Discussions like this always took place outside the classroom, usually in the student union with lots of coffee. You all have a major league scholarly paper half-written here! Thanks all!

    Puppet Master is my story . . . and I’m stickin’ to it!

    1. Thanks, Buttons! I haven’t engaged in a discussion like this one in some time. It is definitely one of the things I miss now that I am living outside academia. That said…

      Pippin, I’m not sure you have read my comments carefully. I never said Mycroft was essential to any story’s plot; in fact, in the first sentence of my first response to this question, I openly acknowledged he is not. And I never said he was anything other than a minor character. In your last, you imply that my opinion is just the opposite on these two points, but if you go back and read both of my posts, you will see it is not.

      In addition, I never said Holmes was not a three-dimensional character without Mycroft. I tried to show how Mycroft’s character is a special tool for sharpening that three-dimensional character. So it would seem that I simply value the “icing on the cake” (as you put it) more than you do. From my perspective as a fiction writer, it’s the “icing” in one’s work that makes the difference between a good writer and a great writer.

      To better illustrate my point of view, let’s convert this discussion from the realm of literature to the realm of visual art, taking Van Gogh’s Starry Night as our subject… Leaving Mycroft out of the canon is not like leaving out one of the largest stars or even one of the trees in that painting—it is rather like leaving the church out of the town below. Is the beauty of the painting altered without it? No. Would it be missed if you didn’t know it should be there? No. But imagine the painting without it, then look at the actual painting again. Since we know Starry Night with the church in place, we feel its absence when it is removed because the church gives perspective—both visually and metaphorically. The power of the swirling brushstrokes in the sky would still be there without the church, but with it, we are reminded of humanity’s feeble attempts to understand something much brighter, wilder, and more immense than we are. The tiny church, with its thin steeple pointing toward the heavens, magnifies the vastness and the power of Van Gogh’s sky. In the opposite way, Mycroft gives perspective to Holmes (i.e., making Holmes’s powers not quite so vast). Still, would we miss Mycroft if we didn’t know he should be in the canon? No. But he IS there, and since we know he belongs there and we can appreciate the perspective he gives us of Holmes (as little brother in big brother’s shadow), we would miss him if he were removed.

      In terms of de-mythologizing Holmes, YELL does make him a bit more human, but it hardly de-mythologizes him because Holmes’s error in that story is more a misreading of the evidence than an actual failure. There isn’t a flaw in his reasoning, just an alternative explanation of the facts he doesn’t see. This oversight doesn’t de-mythologize him the way the existence of a more intelligent sibling does. A mistake brings Holmes closer to us for a moment. The knowledge that someone smarter exists in his world keeps him there.

      In terms of Mycroft’s position in the government, you say, “What little we know, and it is less facts than Holmes’s interpretation of the facts, are tea leaves.” I think we can safely trust Holmes’s “interpretation of the facts.” He is not given to exaggeration. On the contrary, he firmly believes, “To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are.” (Ironically, he is speaking here in GREE of his intelligence in relation to Mycroft’s.) So, if Holmes says Mycroft is “the most indispensable man in the country” who “occasionally is the British government,” I believe him.

      All that to say, we simply disagree about Mycroft’s literary value. I believe he gives perspective to Holmes which would be missing otherwise. (At the very least, he gives us perspective on Holmes’s estimation of himself.) Thus, Mycroft is one of those touches that makes the canvas of the canon a masterpiece.

      1. I hate that it seems we are talking at cross purposes. It goes to show that I have a lot to learn about writing (education never ends and all that). Let me say again that “I have come to the conclusion that he is a minor character whose absence would not be noticed by the reader” and if I implied that you had an opposite opinion, that was not my intent. I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer.

        I never meant to imply that you thought Holmes was a three-dimensional character, I was only voicing my feelings for Doyle’s genius and stating my belief that if Mycroft never existed I would still feel that way and I think most Sherlockians would the same as well (at least I’d hope so). It is my opinion that, looking at the Canon as a whole and how Doyle came to write the series, that Mycroft is “icing on the cake” and not a main ingredient. My “values” not yours and in no way meant to suggest that. Again, all apologies.

        I don’t think we disagree on Mycroft’s literary value. I esteem Mycroft’s presence in the Canon and agree that “Mycroft is one of those touches that makes the canvas of the canon a masterpiece.” The Van Gogh analysis is wonderful.

        If I feel that the importance and influence of Mycroft’s role as occasionally the British Government has expanded and enhanced by other after 1927, again, that is my reading of the Canon and is not to imply that other interpretations are wrong.

        Thank you for the debate, but I guess forensics is not my strong suit.

  10. oops, I meant to say “I implied that you had an same opinion”. As with my debate skills, my proof reading is also not up to snuff.

  11. I believe anyone reading this delightful exchange would agree that you both have valid points and that you both enhance the interpretation of the Canon. What is wonderful is the fact that it is never a matter of “right or wrong,” rather it is a matter of clarity and the enhancement of the pleasure derived from our reading.

    This leads me to suggest a new format and activity for the Society: a Weekly Debate on a literary topic from the Canon. A number of you (and you know who you are) have superb skills and are able to stake out and defend your positions and do so with graciousness. One has to believe that we all would be richer for the debate and the insights gained from well-reasoned and presented thinking.

    Dare we proceed with such a bold adventure? See the News and Events Page (home page).

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