Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

NeroWolfeWhat’s this book about?

Most aficionados of detective fiction are familiar with the exploits of Nero Wolfe, the corpulent private detective who directs the activities of his associate Archie Goodwin in some 70 recorded cases written by Rex Stout (and a handful of licensed continuations by Robert Goldsborough). Nero Wolfe has been the subject of two films, four radio series, and two television series — you can read all about him in his Wikipedia entry here.

This book is what used to be called an “appreciation” — perhaps it still would be. It consists of a recapitulation of the plots of all extant novels and short stories as at the date of publication. Both Rex Stout and the series were still alive at this point and my first paperback edition is missing information about the final three novels, a couple of short story accumulations, and all of Robert Goldsborough’s continuation novels. As well, since all the stories take place against a common background of Wolfe’s New York brownstone and a recurring cast of characters, the volume accumulates what is known of persons, places, and things that figure in what has become known as the “corpus“. Corpus is a play on words referring to Wolfe’s bulky body and the complete oeuvre of his fictional adventures. As the back cover blurb on my first paperback edition (shown above) indicates, this is “a handbook for informed appreciation, a compendium and a chronology”. There is nothing here that attempts to bring any new understanding to where the character comes from, or to deepen your understanding of Nero Wolfe’s place in detective fiction; this is merely an assembly of facts and citations.

f643024128a041cb24846010Why is this worth reading?

It’s not.

This is because we now have Wikipedia and the internet; anyone can now indulge him- or herself in whatever level of information and speculation they wish about the exact dimensions of Wolfe’s office, the placement of his red leather chairs, how many cookbooks precisely are on the shelves of his chef Fritz, etc. The publication dates and plot summaries of every single Nero Wolfe volume are available from Wikipedia and a number of other websites. There are single-purpose Wolfe-oriented discussion groups (one of which I helped moderate for a few years), organizations like the Wolfe Pack operate websites and have physical meetings, etc. The functions of this volume have been entirely superseded by the internet.

In fact, I’m kind of at a loss to know why this volume was published at all, although until Penguin reprinted it in trade paperback format I used to sell a lot of used paperback copies of the Bantam edition to Wolfe aficionados at fairly high prices. There is nothing in this book that one cannot glean from reading the novels themselves and, honestly, the novels are much, much better written and more lively. If you have read the books, then you don’t need plot recaps. If you haven’t read them, well, there is a faint likelihood that it will be of benefit to you to know what you’ve missed, but isn’t it better to merely obtain a list of the books and tick them off as you go? And if you for some unfathomable reason cannot live without knowing the dimensions of Wolfe’s office — his fictional office, I hasten to add, and subject like everything else in the corpus to the vagaries of Rex Stout’s constant forgetfulness of minor details — then that information can be gleaned from the novels themselves, and you can spend an evening if you so desire in drawing up a floor plan and trying to imagine what the waterfall picture looks like. This volume, incidentally, does not contain such a floor plan.

But if you are a Nero Wolfe fan, and you have tracked down a copy of Where There’s A Will complete with photographs, and you have spent a month’s rent on a first edition of Corsage, and have a copy of every Tecumseh Fox mystery and Alphabet Hicks mysteries and the Dol Bonner mystery, and Double for Death in the mapback edition, and the book/movie The President Vanishes, and the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and all the Goldsborough novels, and and and — then you will not strain at the gnat, relatively speaking, that is this volume. You can acquire a copy on Abebooks for under $10 as of this writing. One of the entries for the hardcover first says “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” And that sentiment brings me to my point.

In recent months I have been giving thought to “tie-ins”. These are artifacts that are connected with fictional characters but not usually invented by the original creator of that character. I’ve posted an article (found here) about Sophie Hannah’s authorized continuation of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot character, The Monogram Murders. My piece here talks at some length about the relationship between the book and the film of S. S. Van Dine’s The Gracie Allen Murder Case, and goes into the nascent industry of the movie tie-in novel represented by such volumes as Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak. My piece even notes the existence of a Milton Bradley board game called “The Gracie Allen Murder Case Game” marketed as an adjunct to the short-lived film that will set you back a cool $700 or so IF you can find a well-worn copy, which you probably can’t; it’s bloody rare indeed.

In 2015, the movie tie-in paperback has perhaps waned in popularity from its zenith in, perhaps, the 80s and 90s, where it was very nearly obligatory for every film being marketed to boys and young men to come with its accompanying novelization (a kind of prosodic dumbing-down of the plot of the film in simple English), and for films featuring handsome male actors and/or musicians addressed to girls and young women to have an accompanying novelization in slightly higher-level language but more colour close-up photos tipped into the centre. Tie-in novels have rather died down in the subsequent years, but the concept is still going strong in ways you may find difficult to believe. Murder, She Wrote was last broadcast in 1996 (although there were four subsequent made-for-TV movies). Donald Bain, listed as co-author with the imaginary Jessica Fletcher, has published 35 volumes in the series of novels featuring Jessica Fletcher, most in hardcover; two a year for quite a while, including 2015. Thirty-five volumes, still going strong almost 20 years after the last episode of the TV series — quite an achievement.

In a very general sense, a tie-in is a commercial product that is associated with a character, either real or imaginary, but that does not contribute to the original purpose or reason for the celebrity of that character. Jessica Fletcher was the main character of a television series; therefore, novels — as well as lunch boxes, memo pads, aprons, tote bags, coffee cups, and “appreciations” — which feature that character are all tie-in materials.

There are mysteries which purport to be written by celebrities like Martina Navratilova and Willie Shoemaker, and ones which apparently actually were written by Steve Allen. Those are tie-ins to celebrity. There are ancillary novels that accompany various series of films and television; Quantum Leap books, Babylon 5 novels, Indiana Jones adventures, and enough Star Trek novels to sink a Battleship — which also has its own movie tie-in novel. Frankly, the thought of a board game becoming a film which is then turned into a novel fills me with wildly mixed emotions ranging from nausea to hilarity, but mostly I find it bathetic in the extreme. That novel must take awfulness to a new Stygian depth. I have the weird feeling that if I open the novel, I’ll implode and form a new Heinleinian multiverse, or something.

What the tie-in process boils down to, though, is that a writer creates a character; in this case, Nero Wolfe. The character becomes very popular and people are anxious to get, and read, new books in the series. (Or to experience new Indiana Jones films or watch new episodes featuring Jessica Fletcher or, way back when, listen to new radio episodes featuring The Shadow.) The original material doesn’t appear fast enough to suit enthusiastic fans, and this is where tie-in materials start to be created. What also happens, of course, is that the creation of these tie-in materials makes economic sense to someone. If you can create a lunch box for $1 and sell it for $3, fine. But if you can put a picture of Donny Osmond on it and sell it for $7, even if you have to pay Mr. Osmond $1 for the privilege, you are doing very well indeed. A $3 lunch box works as well as a $7 lunch box; what you are saying is that you like Donny Osmond and want your luncheon companions to know that, and it’s worth $4 to be able to say so.

Back in the day, this was a primitive form of branding. The manufacturers of Ovaltine knew that children liked radio stories about Little Orphan Annie and so created mugs for drinking Ovaltine with pictures of Little Orphan Annie on them. Note that in the old days, these things related directly; Ovaltine provided mugs from which one could drink Ovaltine, and this is an elegant closed circle. It didn’t take long to figure out, though, that there were two ways in which this process could be made to pay. One is that the tie-in didn’t have to relate directly to the character; for instance, a Little Orphan Annie colouring book. The other is that sometimes it is worthwhile to create tie-in materials that are nearly worthless and give them to children (and credulous adults) as ways of cementing brand loyalty. Hence, the Little Orphan Annie secret decoder ring. If you listened to the radio program and possessed a decoder ring, you would receive secret messages which you could decode — mostly, as I understand it, having to do with the advisability of drinking lots of Ovaltine. If you were a child who was not in possession of the ring, your ring-less status was derided by your friends and it was clear that you were not getting the full benefit of your fannish appreciation of Little Orphan Annie. Children who owned rings were au courant with the cultural zeitgeist, although I doubt they’d have expressed it that way. Either way, children drank more Ovaltine and more than repaid the cost of the nearly worthless rings.

As time marched on and branding became a more sophisticated process, the existence of tie-ins was a signal of a certain level of brand involvement by the parent company. The folks at Disney were the masters of such branding programs. When the very first sketches were being laid down for the first nascent ideas that were to become, say, The Lady and the Tramp — those sketches were also passed to the marketing department to get to work on Lady and the Tramp comic books and plastic toys and lunch boxes and colouring books and dozens of other things. And the number and extent of such tie-in materials signalled the level of investment that the parent company found worthwhile. Lassie and Dan’l Boone had huge ancillary marketing materials in hundreds of categories; a decade later, The Munsters and The Partridge Family took those numbers into the thousands. You could sleep on Munsters sheets and eat Munsters cereal from Munsters bowls, and carry your Munsters lunchbox home from school while wearing your Eddie Munster jacket, read a Munsters comic book, and play with your glow-in-the-dark Munsters toys and games, while signed-in-plate photographs of Butch Patrick and Yvonne de Carlo smiled down from your bedroom walls. There was no limit to the things upon which Munsters iconography could be stencilled — that is, until they went off the air and everyone had to have a Star Trek lunchbox. There’s no money in static branding.

And so I believe that the adults to whom brands and characters were marked with tie-in materials became accustomed to thinking of characters as the appropriate subject of tie-in materials. For something to be culturally significant, it had to be accompanied by tie-in materials; and this brings us finally back to Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street. As I said, there is really no reason for this volume to exist. It is a kind of cooing noise expressing pleasure at the idea of Nero Wolfe. But it was created, and marketed, as “A ‘must’ for any serious Rex Stout collection.” That’s an idea that deserves a little unpacking.

wolfe-plaqueWhat exactly is a “serious” Rex Stout collection? I’d venture to say that it’s one that is worth the most money. But I have been in the position of selling relatively worthless objects at hefty prices — like, for instance, first editions of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street — to people who didn’t want them for some pleasure that they’d receive by reading the book, but merely wished to possess a copy of the book so that they could say they owned one. So that, indeed, they could prove they had a “serious” collection. I think a “serious” collection can be paradoxically defined as the one that contains the highest number of frivolous objects. The less the object has to do with the original character, the more it’s only in the possession of the “serious” collector. The possessors of these serious collections are thoroughly convinced that the money they spent on acquiring them will be recompensed some day, perhaps by an envious younger person who will double or triple the price paid in order to acquire the tie-in object. But for an example of where that goes wrong, I give you (a) Beanie Babies; (b) the egregious and nearly worthless objects known as “collector plates”; (c) the entire output of the Franklin Mint. Did you pay $500 for a copy of a script from the original Nero Wolfe TV program, apparently annotated in Lee Horsley’s handwriting? Kiss your $500 good-bye, unless you can find someone with the same disease you caught; you may have to infect them personally with the importance and significance and sheer gravitas of such a scarce object.

As to why one would have a Nero Wolfe “collection” that consisted of anything more than novels written about Nero Wolfe — your guess is as good as mine. I confess to having owned a “Nero Wolfe” necktie that is vaguely orchidaceous, that I bought at the time of the Timothy Hutton TV series; it’s a nice tie, but I never wore it and gave it to my brother. I bought it because it was attractive, not because it was associated with the program. It cost me about twice as much as it should have. I have a copy of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street that originally sold for 75 cents; I paid $3 for it, and I would expect to get $5, possibly from one of my readers. That’s the used book business; old books are worth what they will bring from a knowledgeable reader. I paid $35 for a bootleg DVD of 1937’s The League of Frightened Men, because I wanted badly to see it; I wasted $35.

In fact, I actually really, really like the Nero Wolfe novels and stories; I’m well versed in their details and chronology. I’ve read every single one, again and again. I can quote chunks of them. But let me confess; I don’t care in the slightest how big the front room is, or how big the globe is, or the dimensions of the waterfall picture. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t CARE. I like the characters, I like the writing, and I like the spirit and feeling of the books. But by and large, I can tell you — anyone who is trying to convince you that there is something called a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” is trying to take your money. I know this, because I have stood behind the counter of a mystery bookstore and sold people copies of this book, and the Cadfael Companion, and a twee little volume purporting to detail the Wimsey family history, and Agatha Christie tote bags, and Murder, She Wrote coffee cups, at a minimum of 100% markup and, frankly, whatever the traffic would bear. I did that so that I could afford to keep the store’s doors open to make copies of really good, well-written mysteries available to people who wanted to read them, but the people who manufactured the coffee cups have no such excuse.

I have no objection to getting together with like-minded people to discuss the novels and stories, as long as it doesn’t get too out of hand. Most members of organizations like the Wolfe Pack are sensible and intelligent bibliophiles who esteem the same fiction I do, and know the difference between a first edition in jacket of Fer-de-Lance and a TV script that Lee Horsley has scribbled on. In fact, some of my best friends, et cetera. I enjoy finding depths of meaning and a better understanding of American cultural themes and motifs in the books, and I enjoy discussing those things with other people. But if you come to me looking for my $3 paperback of Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, I might take $5 but I’ll try to stick you for $12 — and I’m a relatively nice person. Other merchants will not be so kind, and you may end up with a sample of Lee Horsley’s handwriting at vastly inflated prices.

If you think you need to have a “serious Nero Wolfe collection” — try and understand that that really consists of fiction written featuring Nero Wolfe. Be well-read rather than “serious”; buy the novel and not the lunch box. And leave this book alone.

51pwNjGwcbL._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_My favourite edition

I have a first paperback edition that I skimmed to write this piece, and I’ve had and sold a number of copies of the first edition; since I always made more money from the true first, seen here, I suppose it would be my favourite edition. It’s certainly the one with the best graphic design of any I’ve seen. As of today on Abebooks, a decent copy should set you back somewhere around $25 depending on where you live. Beware of the BCE (book club edition), which looks quite similar but is relatively valueless.

My least favourite volume

I will add here that if you think I was hard on THIS volume, I reserve the utmost scorn and disapproval for a similar volume by one Ken Darby. William Baring-Gould was merely an enthusiastic fanboi before the term existed, albeit a literate and well-read one; Darby regurgitates the same material in worse prose and less exact detail and, to my enormous distaste, stops for a wholly unnecessary chapter to “prove” that any rumours that Messrs. Goodwin and Wolfe are gay are false and vile canards, and says a lot of nasty things about homosexuality in the process. Frankly, I’m gay and had never even considered such an idea; it’s directly contradicted over and over by the Stout-written stories themselves. I gather that the Darby book is out of print and relatively unavailable, and in my opinion it should stay that way, because the author was a vulgar and homophobic toad. I’ll decline to provide you with the title of this piece de merde or even to tag his name; let the book die in its well-deserved obscurity.

 

11 thoughts on “Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street, by William S. Baring-Gould (1969)

  1. Albert says:

    I bought this book back in February 1970 when it was first published in paperback. Through the years I have found it to be a useful and entertaining volume, with a good checklist at the end. The late William Baring-Gould was a member of both the Mystery Writers of America and the Baker Street Irregulars; hardly a fanboy. The back cover of my edition has the following review quoted from the New York Times: “Here, magnificently pieced together with humor and awesome diligence, is Nero Wolfe in toto: his parentage and youth, his cases, his associates, his personality and pronouncements, his diet and income.”

    Scholarship is a cumulative endeavor, and if we know more in 2015, it appears to me that Baring-Gould was at the head of the line, and is entitled to some respect for that. When the book was published in 1969, the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in anyone’s eye except Murray Leinster’s. It would not surprise me if the Internet information pages had not helped themselves to liberal quantities of Baring-Gould’s spadework.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I think you’re actually proving my point, although I doubt you’d think so. Is this scholarship? I can’t agree. Certainly it is, as the cover blurb says, “his parentage and youth, his cases, his associates, his personality…” blah blah blah. The book doesn’t tell us anything about what Nero Wolfe MEANS, or propose a theory of where he fits within a larger scheme of GAD, or ask us to think about why we find his character appealing, or how the relationship between Nero and Archie works in a literary sense. It merely documents an accumulation of things that have been gleaned from the books; there’s nothing here that isn’t from the books, except some silliness about a group of middle-aged fanbois speculating that Nero Wolfe was the illegitimate child of Sherlock Holmes. You say hardly a fanboy? I say ABSOLUTELY a fanboy. This is exactly what fanboys do. They amass large quantities of fictional material without understanding it; they master its trivia without putting it into any kind of context; and they produce documents that are compendia of things they have observed in the books.
      Don’t misunderstand me; I have strong fanboi tendencies and I have certainly accumulated a lot of trivial information in my day. I respect fanbois for what they are, and the single-minded diligence they bring to their efforts. If you want to know Boba Fett’s middle name, they’re the ones to ask. But it’s not scholarship; scholarship is where you step back and think about what you have read, and where it fits with other things that you have read, and what it might mean, and then carefully write about it for an audience of people who also think about what they’re reading.

    • curtis evans says:

      Albert wrote:

      “The back cover of my edition has the following review quoted from the New York Times: ‘Here, magnificently pieced together with humor and awesome diligence, is Nero Wolfe in toto: his parentage and youth, his cases, his associates, his personality and pronouncements, his diet and income.'”

      That’s Allen Hubin’s New York Times review in his crime fiction column (Hubin succeeded Anthony Boucher for several eyars after Boucher’s death). The review of the book in the New York Times that wasn’t blurbed is the one by Harold C. Schonberg, which reads in part:

      “When Baring-Gould is on facts, he is fine. But when he starts to speculate, his enthusiasm leads him to unsupported conclusions. The theory, for example, that Wolfe’s parents were Sherlock Homes and Irene Adler, and that he is Archie’s uncle, has too many holes to be taken seriously. As Wolfe himself might say, shards of data improperly glued together build a grotesque artifact lacking in libratory quality.”

      “A grotesque artifact lacking in libratory quality”

      –Harold C. Schonberg

      I have to admit it would be funny to see that blurbed on a book!

      • Noah Stewart says:

        I had to look up “libratory”, although I was thinking it had something to do with libraries, but it seems to be connected with oscillation. Ah well. As Wolfe himself once said about the word “subreption”, “Leave it in. It’s the correct word, and will increase vocabularies.” (I’ve probably misquoted.)

  2. Collectors are very strange beasts as we all know (whether they write books about their holdings or just spend large amounts of money augmenting them). In Italy I first came across this book when the Mondadori publisher, the biggest editor of what are known over there as ‘gialli’ came up with a beautifully produced uniform edition of all the Stout novella collections, each of which was prefaced with information about an orchid beloved by Wolfe, one of his recipes and consecutive extracts from the Baring-Gould book across the various volumes. They did the same with a series dedicated to the Ellery Queen short story collection, using the much superior Francis M. Nevins Jr book as a sequential intro to the series. I loved collecting those in my youth (this was back in the 80s) as they were published monthly as I recall.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Bantam did a similar uniform paperback edition of Nero Wolfe with introductions written by various people, and bits of ancillary material like reproductions of letters from Stout, original advertisements for the books, etc. I like those, although the Bantam edition contained a lot of silly essays. The point for me is that it’s about the fiction; the material is meant to illustrate or throw light on the specific piece of fiction and isn’t presented in a volume that doesn’t contain any fiction in it. It’s like an amuse bouche or a palate-cleansing appetizer; my only objection is when I don’t get dinner afterwards.

      • I agree Noah and which is why, when you get books like the Nevins, you really have to make the most of them (I have about 25 of those bantam editions incidentally)

  3. BRADSTREET says:

    Back in the mists of time any film/Tv tie-ins tended to be done by underworked professional novelists who were in need of extra cash (surely having Jim Thompson do the IRONSIDE tie-in is one of the weirdest examples of mismatch ever). In most cases these were ‘He said, she said, some description’ but even then there were exceptions. The novelisation of Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES by Michael and Mollie Hardwick is an enjoyable book in its own right, and Isaac Asimov’s FANTASTIC VOYAGE is better than the movie. Most tie-in stuff is merely disposable blah, but I’ve found diamonds amongst the rough. Patrick White’s book about the making of the original MISSION IMPOSSIBLE teleivision series is one of the most fascinating books of its type that I’ve ever read, and I’m a casual viewer rather than an obsessive fan of the show.

    I’ve purchased the occassional item of merchandising. This is because they either amused me, or because I found them aesthetically pleasing. However, I’ve never really understood the urges that cause someone to buy every single STAR WARS figure and never take them out of their packaging. They’re nothing but clunky, mass-produced plastic figures, and you can’t even handle them without reducing their value. They only have value to other obsessive collectors, and when the original collector dies his collection is probably going to end up boxed up and sent to a charity shop. I can’t find it in my heart to damn all sorts of obsessive collecting, but I do find the phenomenon of stuff like collectors cards somewhat distasteful. The companies making them are simply playing on the obsessive nature of certain segments of the population (and in the case of Pokemon that target is children).

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I agree that occasionally there is a tie-in novel that stands out or has some kind of excellence that is not necessarily connected with its origins. Ellery Queen’s “A Study in Terror” is a case in point; it’s not a superb book, but it’s certainly different than the movie for which it’s a tie-in and it’s enjoyable to read.
      There is certainly no harm in owning and appreciating merchandising objects — some have a certain camp value, some are aesthetically pleasant in and of themselves, and some are cultural artifacts that have an outré presence whose virtue is that it is largely incomprehensible. Like Laverne and Shirley salt and pepper shakers. You may or may not appreciate Laverne and Shirley, but there is nothing in this world that will explain why someone felt compelled to produce a set of salt and pepper shakers in their likeness and someone else actually paid money for them — and that idea makes me chuckle. I own a cookie jar in the shape of the Tardis that makes that strange noise associated with the Tardis when you open its lid. And what Timelords have to do with Maple Cremes, I’ll never, ever know. It’s funny and silly and a little sad.
      As you suggest, the problem is not owning a statuette of Boba Fett. Anyone can make that minor aesthetic slip LOL. The problem is when you own 725 statuettes of characters like Boba Fett from the same “universe” and believe that there is some value inherent in them that would be evident to someone who is not another obsessive collector. That seems to be in the realm of mental illness. If you think your mint-in-packaging Boba Fett toy is worth $200, I disagree, but that merely means it’s not worth $200 to ME. The important point, though, is that you won’t get $200 from the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. You’ll get shown the door.
      Closer to home, it’s fairly well known that I love Dell mapback editions. You might say I collect them; certainly I’ve dealt in them and earned money from them. I enjoy their cheerful vulgarity and the raw nature of their attempts to strike out and find a new way to market books. But I have never been crazy enough to even consider buying a copy of one of the rarest and most expensive books in the series — the Dell Crossword Puzzle Dictionary, which sells for hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Because you can’t read it and enjoy it.

  4. I like to think that I, too, despite having fanboy tendencies, am not a fanboy. Fanboys are those young fellas who used to write into Superman comics and say, “I really enjoyed last month’s story, ‘The Triumph of Lex Luthor,’ but on page 17, panel 2, Superman’s cape is blue instead of red!!!!” Sadly, there are many books like this about my favorite GA author, Agatha Christie, and I must mortifyingly admit to owning a few. I suppose it took a lot of time to organize and categorize characters and plots as these authors have done, but the results are brief and unenlightening synopses that are more often than not glaringly inaccurate. It might have been you, Noah, or Curt or someone who asked who exactly these books were for. It’s a good question, but a better one has always been “Why will no one write for the person who DOES want insight and analysis?” I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that the internet – and blogs like yours and Curt’s and many other – are now the primary resources for such discourse. Still, once in a while, a really thoughtful book, like Greene’s on Carr or the Nevins book about the Queens, makes picking up a book about books worthwhile again.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Absolutely. The Greene and Nevins books you mention have CONTENT: they ask you to think about why things happened, or how books and characters came to exist, and where they fit into the greater scheme of things. I just find it hard to appreciate “appreciations”; Wikipedia and stopyourekillingme.com and such sites fill that checklist function admirably.

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