This book is the equivalent of that lamb kebab I ate one hot summer back when I was living in Montreal.  Like the Pendergast series to date, I quite enjoyed Indian food – until that wretched kebab.  It was bad.  So bad that I couldn’t eat Indian food against for years.  And, I suspect, it’ll probably be that long before I pick up another book in the Pendergast series.

White Fire starts off promisingly enough with a mystery set in a Colorado town. Pendergast’s protege, a young idiot named Corrie Swanson, gets into trouble while researching and studying (and breaking and entering) the bodies of some 19th century miners.  She is facing serious jail time until Pendergast shows up and turns the table on the community in spectacularly convenient fashion (locating a descendant of the dead who objects to plans to dig up a local graveyard, something the community failed to do even though, as Pendergast points out, she was remarkably easy to find).  Also coincidentally, wealthy locals start getting knocked off in grisly fashion, their multi-million dollar homes burned to the ground.  Why is this suddenly happening now when Pendergast comes to town?  Good question.  And one that’s never answered.  Who is responsible?  Er, if you guessed the character who doesn’t serve any real purpose in the story, you’d be correct!

As the town is gripped by the murders, someone begins to stalk Corrie: creeping around her place at night, killing her dog, taking a shot at her.  Corrie reacts like any level-headed person in her position would: by not reporting the incidents to the authorities and not telling her mentor (who is an FBI agent by the way) Aloysius Pendergast.  In fact, she seems more annoyed at Pendergast’s concerns for her safety than she is about her dead dog and almost getting shot.  While Corrie runs around town making one dubious decision after another, effectively moving the plot forward, Aloysius looks into the existence of an unpublished Sherlock Holmes story that may shed some light on the mysterious 19th century killings of a group of miners.  Fans of Sherlock scholars and fans have sought this rumoured manuscript for close to a century.  Enter Pendergast who locates it in a matter of days.

Blind luck, coincidences, and convenient developments abound to help a listless and uninspired Pendergast solve the case.  Yes, okay, he’s depressed due to the events in a previous book, but that doesn’t excuse the lazy way by which he works the case.  At one point, he attempts to blackmail an elderly woman to gain access to a property.  At another, he gains access to sensitive documents by barging into a house and setting a fire (which he later puts out with some gravy), causing everyone to conveniently clear out so that he can search.  At still another, he time travels through the power of his mind to listen in on a conversation between Oscar Wilde and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  Yes, I know, this means of magical mental transport was set up in Still Life With Crows, but that doesn’t excuse it’s lameness. I hated it then and hated it here.

Ultimately, we learn that the murderer was rendered insane by mercury poisoning, something he was exposed to in the womb.  Oddly enough, we are told about one character who is exposed to the mercury while working the mines and it turned him into a babbling, deranged psycho.  Our murderer, who has been exposed since birth is, in contrast, a calculating serial killer possessed of the intelligence and rationale to hide his crimes.

And, uh, again, why does he just happen to start killing people when Pendergast comes to town?

Oh, almost forgot.  The book almost scored points for me late when it seems Pendergast is too late to save Corrie from being burned alive.  BUT, in yet another ridiculous twist, it is revealed that the charred remains don’t belong to Corrie but some other woman who the serial killer/arsonist happened to burn alive in approximately the save spot a little earlier.

A long way from Relic, the first instalment in the Pendergast series, this book was one bad lamb kebab.

This blog entry is (ironically) dedicated to Birthday Gal Das!

28 thoughts on “July 7, 2014: Our Book of the Month Club reconvenes! Let’s discuss White Fire!

  1. My Goodreads review:

    Why do authors think they need to write sentences like this?:

    It was a few minutes before midnight when the silver Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet pulled up to the elegant front door of 3 Quaking Aspen Drive.

    or this:

    She snapped on a bank of lights. They illuminated the long granite countertops; the Wolf oven and dual Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer units; the three doors leading, respectively, into the laundry, the second kitchen, and the dining room.

    This is one of the Dan-Brown-esque habits I find most annoying in authors: the compulsion to unnecessarily identify things by make and model. Couldn’t you just call the car a Porsche coupe? And describe the kitchen appliances as “top of the line” or “chef quality”? The needless brand name dropping takes me right out of the story; it immediately calls to mind an image of the author Googling Porsche models just so he can use the full, correct name of a car that makes no difference to the plot. Here’s a tip: spend more time on developing the actual plot and less on the irrelevant details.

    Because plot is one of the biggest problems with this book. The story centres around a mystery from the 1870s in Roaring Fork, CO, a fictionalized version of Aspen. Back when the town was a silver mining frontier town, there were 11 deaths of prospectors attributed to a man-eating grizzly bear. Much of the story is devoted to figuring out the truth behind these deaths. It’s an interesting premise, but the main character, Corrie Swanson, is clumsily manipulated by the authors to do the stupidest things, purely to shoehorn the plot where they want it to go. Almost nothing she does, from beginning to end, evidences a lick of common sense. She’s a junior in university studying forensic science and aspires to be in law enforcement. So why does she commit a B & E as practically her first act upon arriving in town to begin work on her thesis? Later, she commits a second B & E (and theft!) in broad daylight, at the same location as the first, justifying it in her mind with “Oh, the weather’s so bad, no one will be guarding the building now.” And then, even though she’s sure she’s being followed, as she’s riding the snowmobile she just stole up a mountain in the middle of a blizzard (never having ridden a snowmobile in her life), again she thinks to herself, “The idea that he’d keep following me up here in this blizzard is just so unlikely!” It’s completely ridiculous.

    Aside from her lack of caution with respect to her physical safety, Corrie also seems to lack any investigative instincts. At one point, she has a document that mentions the name of the miner who told the tale of the grizzly maulings to Oscar Wilde (who then told it to Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote about it in his diary, which is how Corrie found out about this case in the first place). But even though she’s trying to solve the mystery of how the miners really died, she doesn’t think to pursue this name and investigate whether this miner, who had first-hand, contemporaneous knowledge of the killings, might have written down or otherwise passed the knowledge on to others. She thinks the document merely “charming” and “too far afield to merit inclusion in her thesis.” In another example, when the home she’s staying in is menaced by someone snooping around outside, she tries to access the security system to view what the cameras recorded of the perimeter. When it asks for a password that she doesn’t have, she gives up. Why doesn’t she just call the out-of-state homeowner and explain the situation to get the password? It is in his best interest, as well as hers, to see who’s on that recording. But she doesn’t do this simple, logical thing. She apparently prefers ignorance to knowledge.

    Corrie’s mentor and benefactor, the mysterious FBI agent, Pendergast, has his own mystery to solve, this one in the present day. A mad arsonist (whose identity is deducible on page 164 of a 368-page book) is terrorizing the town, burning people alive in their multi-million dollar mansions, and Pendergast has been asked to consult on the case. While possessing a bit more common sense and interpersonal diplomacy skills than his protégé, Corrie, Pendergast nevertheless behaves in bizarre and unbelievable ways. For example, wearing an absurdly out of place black suit, he commandeers a snowmobile (never having ridden one in his life) and rides up to the remote cabin of a survivalist-type mountain man, and once there, convinces the suspicious recluse to let him in by — get this — claiming to be a fellow survivalist! Looking like a Wall Street lawyer! Then once he has tricked the man into telling what he knows about the 1870s grizzly attacks by playing Russian Roulette with him (the man wins Pendergast’s money; Pendergast wins answers to his questions), he needlessly confesses that the game had been rigged all along — in other words, that he cheated the guy to get information from him. Why say this, when Pendergast has what he wanted? And why say this when he’s in the home of this crazy man, surrounded by guns on every wall, when Pendergast still has to turn around, go outside, get on his snowmobile and ride away? That’s a lot of opportunity to get shot by a man angry at having been deceived.

    This isn’t the only bizarre behaviour from Pendergast. At one point he decides that he needs to search for a “lost” Sherlock Holmes story, and to that end, he visits a woman who works for the national trust charged with maintaining the building he’d like to search. First, he gives her a sob story about being the grandson of the woman who last occupied the house, in the hopes that she’ll allow him one last look for nostalgia’s sake. Never mind that even a cursory amount of internet searching would quickly prove his story a feeble lie. When that tack doesn’t work, he abruptly changes demeanour and tries to get his way via blackmail, which predictably only solidifies her resolve not to give him access. Both strategies are ham-handed and make Pendergast look like a terrible investigator at best, and a raving lunatic at worst.

    This makes it all the less convincing that he has the skills to perfectly diagnose the arson crime scenes (he details how the crimes were committed, right down to which window the killer entered and exited from, even though the homes have been reduced to smouldering piles of ash and melted glass) and the insight to find a “lost” Sherlock Holmes story that Holmes aficionados have been speculating about and searching for for decades. Despite their decades of trying, Pendergast figures out where it is after a whole ten minutes of turning his attention to the problem. This character is completely, ludicrously unbelievable. (Never mind the fact that, despite being an FBI agent, he seems to have no obligation either to report to a superior or to justify his time, actions or expenditures.)

    In the book’s most outlandish sequence, Pendergast employs “an esoteric meditative discipline known as Chongg Ran… one of the least known of the Tibetan mind techniques” in order to astrally project himself back to the past, in order to see things as they happened and hear a conversation that happened 138 years ago, for which there is no written record. In order to explain why we’ve never heard of this miraculous mind technique before, the authors tell us, “The teachings were never put down in writing, and they could only be transmitted directly teacher-to-pupil.” How convenient.

    Finally, there are just too many coincidences for me to be able to suspend my disbelief. A stray dog shows up at the house where Corrie’s staying, and she takes him in — just so he can get killed and mutilated later on in the story when the authors need a grisly threat to her life. Corrie runs from a pursuer through a labyrinth of underground mine tunnels blocked off from public access, in the dark, and a situation in which she should be hopelessly lost instead becomes one where she miraculously finds the one small alcove containing the hidden corpses that were her objective all along.

    That last coincidence was the bridge too far for me. This is the first book by these authors that I’ve read, and I’m not eager to try any more. Regular readers of the Pendergast series seem to really like the first one, so I might pick that one up at some point, just to learn where Pendergast gets all his money from, and why he seems to report to no one, and who all the off-screen random characters are who are occasionally referred to in this book, but I can’t say I have high hopes for the quality of that book, after the eye-roller that was this one.

  2. From the Goodreads reviews of this book, I learned that people actually like the Pendergast series in general, so I overcame the doubt and fear engendered by this dreadful entry and got Relic out from the library to see how the series started. I actually liked that one! (Almost) no characters do anything completely stupid or farfetched or illogical. It’s amazing! And it’s a nice, pulpy, summer horror read. I recommend it.

  3. I started reading the Pendergast novels years ago and started off loving them. Then He became kind of a caricature and I stopped. White Fire was “almost” a stand-alone book and got me back into the series. I liked it the book, warts and all.

    Corrie was impetuous and rash in other books, as well. Fortune favors the bold and all that. I come from a poor background, so I can identify with her wish to be independent and not take “charity” from Pendergast. Everyone needs a helping hand but Corrie’s been receiving charity from Pendergast for years. Charity can be complicated; you can feel grateful, guilt, AND resentment that you need such favors.

    One literary question for you though. I’ve been listening to a few audio books and noticed an odd (to me) use of the word “lighted”. “The candle in the room had been lighted”. Not lit but lighted. I’ve heard lighted used instead of lit in several books. Where do you fall in “lit” vs “lighted”? Lighted just sounds off to me.

  4. Thanks! I looked online and both are accepted. I wonder if it’s a regional thing?

  5. @ Tam Dixon – down here in Texas I’d say “lit”.

    @ Das – Happy Birthday young lady!

  6. Happy Birthday, das!

    I’m not as fond of the recent Pendergast books as I am of the first 5 or 6 and would never have recommended this as an introduction to the character. Go back to the beginning. Start with Relic and take a break when you hit Brimstone. They get a bit odd after that, but you can pick up the next bunch beginning with Dance of Death and ending with Cemetery Dance. I could have done without the next three and, although White Fire is an improvement over that trilogy, it didn’t do a lot for me. I agree that Pendergast just seems to be phoning it in now.

    @Joe: I read your comment before the posts before it and thought well, of course he’s a lit man – he’s a writer and a reader and… oh, lit, not lit.

  7. I’ve never read any of the Pendergast books before, so I don’t have any frame of reference for the writer’s work, but I have to say that I found some of the plot points to be nothing short of ludicrous.

    In particular, I thought that Corrie’s reasoning that it was safe for her to go to the mine, when she knew that someone was trying to kill her, because it was snowing so hard that no one would be out was particularly stupid. Yes, I said it, STUPID! If she’s prepared to go out in the blizzard, thereby putting the lie to her logic (such as it is), then it stands to reason that a seasoned killer would be more than willing to go out as well in order to kill her when she presents herself as such a tempting target – one who goes alone into a remote area, in a blizzard, with no witnesses around. An assassin would be much more prepared in the survival game than a mere criminology student.

    I was also quite annoyed with Corrie being so adamant that Pendergast not help her with the investigation into the miners’ deaths, since she believed that if he did so her achievement in solving the murders would be tainted because people would believe that he had done the actual work and simply let her put her name to it, then she gets pissy at him because he won’t tell her what he discovered during his own investigation in Leadville, but instead pushes her to discover it herself with some not so subtle hints. She also gets ticked at him when he leaves town for a few days without telling her where he’s going or why. Either she wants his help or she doesn’t.

    I have to admit I was surprised when Corrie was “killed” in the fire, but her miraculous escape seemed contrived. She’s a student for crying out loud, not Houdini. Although her getting her finger shot off did provide some appeasement since she didn’t escape the killer completely unscathed. Further, it wasn’t at all difficult to figure out who the body belonged to once it was revealed that it wasn’t Corrie.

    Capt. Bowdree was also quite convenient. When she first appears, she seems very together, then we find out she’s falling apart from PTSD, but then she’s all together again because she’s found a purpose in her life from saving Corrie. Blah, blah, blah.

    As for the mercury poisoning, if it rots the brain and turns people into raving lunatics, how is it that Ted was so calculating that no one had any idea he was a nutcase? In any case, in the end, Ted did turn out to be a raving lunatic. So how was he able to hide it so well? And, more importantly, are there any more mercury-crazed nuts running around town?

    Regarding the Sherlock Holmes story, I don’t know if there really is a rumored missing story or not, but the ease with which Pendergast solves that little mystery, must mean that he is THE GREATEST INVESTIGATOR EVER TO LIVE!!! Especially since no one has been able to find it for the last 100 years, despite looking high and low. It had been so elusive, in fact, that at this point, it really was more a rumor, and I doubt that anyone really believed it existed, but it was nice to hunt for and to dream of finding it one day.

    I did think that the Holmes story itself was rather well done, particularly given the complete change in writing style from the main story.

    However, I also thought the Zen, Buddhist, out-of-body whatever it was was a serious stretch of credulity. I doubt that there is any way Pendergast could have gone into a trance and travelled back in time in order to listen in on the conversation between Doyle and Wilde, thus obtaining the necessary clues to not only discover the title of the missing story, but to find the manuscript itself.

    I also noted the rich folks doing their nastiest to the lowlife “have nots” in order to line their own pockets, which was rather reminiscent of a previous BOTM, while the heroes continually commit crimes in order to further their own agenda.

    Yet, putting aside all of the above, I thought that the basis for the main storyline involving the investigation into the grizzly bear killings that actually turned out to be 150 year old murders was very inventive. The story could have been so much better if that was the focus instead of drifting off on the wild tangents of the Holmes story (although it did play a part in solving the murders) and the crazy killer who was only crazy when the storyline called for it and who was completely sane at all other times.

    Joe: Maybe you should stipulate that if there is a character named Ted, or any variation thereof, in a book, it cannot be chosen as a Book of the Month (think The Rich and the Dead (so memorable I couldn’t remember the title and had to look it up on your blog since I’d already removed it from my Kindle)).

    Das: Happy birthday! The description of Pendergast makes him seem like someone who’d be right up your alley. Maybe Todd found a job and went respectible.

  8. One other thing regarding the security system in the Corrie’s staying in: Is it prescient? How does it know to start recording 30 seconds BEFORE motion is detected? I want one of those systems! How about you?

  9. Love your review, cat4444! As for the security system, I took it to mean that the system’s like a Tivo. It’s constantly recording and erasing over its recording. So at any given time, you’ve got the last 30 seconds recorded (just like Tivo has the last hour recorded, even if you’re not actively recording a show); then if there’s movement, it’s like hitting the “record” button and the system saves not only that previous 30 seconds, but also the next 30 seconds after the movement. That’s my guess, anyway.

    But maybe I’m giving them too much credit.

  10. @TAM DIXON
    Definitely “LIT”!
    Personally, I think “LIGHTED” is more of an “aerial”-term rather than a “pyro” one.
    — Speaking of which, we just won’t ask DAS how many Candles were “involved”!?

  11. Happy Birthday das!

    An entire story of deus ex machina? Sounds legit. Glad I passed on this one.

  12. @cat4444 It probably records on a 30 second loop, erasing as it goes, and only saving the segment when it includes movement. I’ve only had one cup of coffee, and I’m not a techie, so I hope that made sense…

  13. As far as everybody on here who hated this book, I guess you have to be a fan to get it. Start at the beginning with Relic, and read the whole series. Not every one will be your favorite, but the series as a whole is one of, if not the best out there. And contrary to opinion here, I actually place this one near the top. (along with Relic, Reliquary, and Cabinet of Curiosities) Again, I guess it’s just a matter of personal taste, and the fact that I love just about everything these two have written, either solo or together. The Gideon Crew series by the duo, and the Wyman Ford books by Mr. Preston are to be recommended too, but they might also be an acquired taste, so take that with a grain of salt and check them out.

  14. I don’t recall exactly what I wrote in my comment about White Fire when the book was being chosen, I seem to recall dire warnings of terrible calamities should it be chosen.

    I remember reading the book and being very frustrated with Corrie’s character and how stupid she was being. And that Pendergast wouldn’t tell her the reason why she should be concerned, for her own good, of course. This is a way over used plot device that really annoys me. Five seconds of talking could have prevented an entire chain of events, but oh no, the character won’t say anything for no other reason then because. Or pick your own silly reason. Time after time, a person is told not to do something, just because, while the person doing the warning knows exactly why, but he’s on his way to pick up a mocha java latte double fat deluxe whip cream with cinnamon, so doesn’t bother.

    When they should really say, don’t do that because I suspect that person is an insane murdering psychopath!
    Or, don’t go in the basement, or you’ll be hacked to bloody little bits by axe wielding hobbits!
    “Oh. OK then.” And then the book is over.
    Or “Don’t read that book, or you’ll lose three days of your life you’ll never get back!”
    I guess I should have been more specific.
    In the end I couldn’t finish it.

    I can see how this would work, although I don’t know if they actually exist, and I’ve read about them before but I don’t recall if it was fiction or a technology site.

    It uses a 30 second recording buffer, when sufficient motion is detected to trip the recorder it saves the 30 seconds of buffer and starts recording in real time.

  15. Firstly, thank you, everyone, for the well wishes and dedication. I’m not a birthday person – haven’t observed on in over 40 years – but I appreciate the sentiments.

    Secondly, I was a bit disappointed with White Fire in that I figured out who the killer was right away, and – although I like Corrie – when I read a Penderbook I do want more Pendergast than I got in this one. And while I found the book to be a page-turner, I never felt like someone was outside my window, watching me – scaring me – like I did when reading the other Pendergast books.

    I know Preston and Child said that in this one Pendergast would be taking a break (considering what happened to him in the previous 3 books), so that may be why it seemed like he was just ‘phoning it in’. However, I must say that I really enjoyed Pendergast in the scenes he was in, especially in the beginning, and especially when he “turns the table on the community in spectacularly convenient fashion”. That was actually just about my favorite part.

    @ Kathode – As (and if) you read through the series, you will find that Pendergast uses the Chongg Ran technique quite often, and with further explanation as to how it’s done in the earlier books, starting with Still Life With Crows. Joey hates it, but I sort of like it. 🙂 Also, Pendergast is always (or, most always) in his signature black suit…it’s one of those things that makes the character fun, imho. He shows up in the most unlikely places dressed like that, and you can’t help but smile at on-lookers’ reactions.

    You also wrote: “Pendergast nevertheless behaves in bizarre and unbelievable ways…”

    Yes, that IS our Pendergast. He is very bizarre…very. His family even more so – but that’s one reason I thought this a terrible book for people new to the series to start with. There is so much that happens, and that the reader learns, between Relic and White Fire that it does make the character seem quite strange in the latter book, if that’s the first one read.

    You also wrote: “When that tack doesn’t work, he abruptly changes demeanour and tries to get his way via blackmail, which predictably only solidifies her resolve not to give him access. Both strategies are ham-handed and make Pendergast look like a terrible investigator at best, and a raving lunatic at worst.”

    Again, as (and if) you read through the series, you will see that Pendergast is a master manipulator and expert in human psychology, one who adapts his strategy according to the personality he faces. He has used the above strategies to his advantage many times, but in this one case he fails quite miserably. I actually read that passage from the POV of the National Trust woman (forgot her name 😛 ), so I saw Pendergast, and his tricks, through her eyes. It helps. 🙂

    I really have to run, life has been insanely busy and I have little time to myself.


  16. Looks like I dodged a bullet again with this one! I’ve been meaning to grab the first Pendergast book but haven’t got around to it yet. I was wary about reading this one as I’m not familiar with the series. As it turns out it’s not released here in the UK yet so I couldn’t find a copy even if I wanted to.

    Even with the poor reviews of this book I’m still interested in starting the series from the beginning and if I finally get to White Fire I’ll be approaching it with trepidation.

    Perhaps it’s time Preston & Child wrote something else.

  17. The PBS Sherlock uses that memory palace idea as well. Must be getting more common, at least in fiction. 😉

    Just had a friend return from Thailand so he could study Vipassana meditation. He didn’t say anything about a memory palace but he did say that he couldn’t speak, make eye contact or use technology. The undispersed energy would escalate inside of me until I blew up! (I can be hyper)

  18. das: In the scene with the National Trust lady, I understood Pendergast’s first tactic (the sob story); even if it was a thin, easily debunked fabrication, it was probably the strategy most likely to work with that woman in that moment. When that failed, he should have just left while still in grieving-grandson character. He knew his backup plan was to just break into the house anyway, so why not just get on to Plan B already? With the ham-handed blackmail attempt, the risk of failure was high and costly: it would raise the woman’s hackles and make her far more likely to order extra-tight security on the house he would later be trying to break into.

    It’s the same reason I thought his reveal to the survivalist guy that he’d tricked him with the Russian Roulette game was a very stupid idea. He’d already gotten what he wanted from the guy. Why incite him unnecessarily? Especially when Pendergast will be very vulnerable as he rides away from the house on a snowmobile.

    Maybe P is off his game or something (due to events in previous books to which I’m not privy), but these two interactions were handled rather clumsily for someone known for his expert manipulative skill.

  19. Yeesh, I’m growing tired of the “idiot who runs to danger” theme. Nice book jacket though.

    Happy Birthday Das! For you b’day I’m sending you a copy of White Fire. Just kidding.

  20. So if this is a bad lamb kebab, what would you suggest as a nice butter chicken?

    Actually, I didn’t get to read this book (again). Been super busy lately. But I’m particularly happy tonight as my power finally came back on after being off almost 4(!) days after Hurricane Arther. (or more correctly, “Post-tropical storm Arthur). Still, it sucked.

    And happy birthday, Das! Although you’re right about not doing birthdays. You’re not getting older – you’re getting better! How could you possibly have missed 40 birthdays, when you can’t be over 35! Or so.

  21. I had finished reading the book about a week previous to the day of discussion but was away from my computer. I found this book to be much more readable than some previous books.

    The intro story I felt a bit out of place but it came more full circle later on. However, I became irritated by the long diversion of Pendergast to England to find a lost story that may have something to events in Colorado. Then, having to read the short story was trying my patients. Having lived in a northern state and accustomed to severe winter weather I found the impetuous actions of Carry to be inexplicable. Winter storms in the Mountains can be down right dangerous and do not treat those acting ignorantly and impetuously with kindness. The authors tried to portray this which only increased my contempt for the Corri not that learning to drive a snowmobile a long and complicated program.

    There were may small moment that lead may away from the story. First when Pendergast was introduce he was introduced as the sickly feeble man with sufficient energy to make it into town on his own much less travel across the ocean. Another moment was when someone dropped a clip and the bullets spilt across the floor. I have handled many clips and drop a couple. I have not seen that which was described in the book. But that is a petty critic.

    I think if this book was taken to film it was serve best as one of those Sunday night mysteries like Kojak, McMillion and Wife, etc. It has a lot of suspensions of disbelieve but the action could be captivating.

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