Episode review: Columbo How to Dial a Murder

Columbo How to Dial a Murder opening titles

Columbo continued to surprise and (possibly) delight viewers with innovative murder methods in How to Dial a Murder – the penultimate episode of the show’s seventh season.

The murder ‘weapon’ in this tale of ghastly revenge was in fact a pair of doberman pinschers, named Laurel and Hardy, who tore a man to shreds after being conditioned to kill upon hearing the code word ROSEBUD.

Sounds intriguing, but is How to Dial a Murder a suitably thrilling, snarling attack dog of an episode? Or is it more of an irritating yapping pooch ready to be kicked into next week? Let’s travel back to 5th April, 1978 and have a look…

Columbo How to Dial a Murder cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dr Eric Mason: Nicol Williamson
Joanne Nicholls: Kim Cattrall
Miss Cochrane: Trish O’Neil
Dr Charles Hunter: Joel Fabiani
Officer Stein: Ed Begley Jr
Dr Garrison: Frank Aletter
Dog: As himself
Written by: Tom Lazarus and Anthony Lawrence
Directed by: James Frawley
Score by: Patrick Williams

Episode synopsis: Columbo How to Dial a Murder

Renowned behavioural psychologist (and film memorabilia fanatic) Dr Eric Mason knows that his colleague, Charlie Hunter, had been enjoying a fling with his now-dead wife. Six months earlier, Mason’s wife died in a ‘mysterious’ car crash (i.e. Mason caused it). Now the dastardly doctor is about to complete his revenge by offing the treacherous Charlie, too.

Mason cooks up a truly diabolical murder method. He’s spent months training his neckerchiefed dobermans, Laurel and Hardy, to respond to a phone ringing and use of the code word ‘Rosebud‘. Upon hearing these audio triggers the placid pups fly into a preternatural rage, tearing apart whomever is luckless enough to be in their way. And today Charlie Hunter’s on the menu.

Columbo Dr Eric Mason
Revenge is sweet for the shirtless Dr Mason

Lured to Mason’s house to play tennis, Charlie is making himself at home when the kitchen phone rings. Mason is calling him from the hospital, where he’s having his annual heart check-up and is conveniently (for plot purposes) attached to the electrocardiogram machine.

With his dogs on high alert after hearing the phone ring, Mason is able to finagle Charlie into calling out ‘Rosebud‘ in their presence. The dogs go berserk, laying into the luckless Charlie as Mason punches the air with glee at the other end of the line. As Columbo killings go, this is as frightening as they come.

Back at home after his check-up, Mason finds his house the scene of a major police investigation headed up by one Lieutenant Columbo, who is merrily playing with the killer dogs before they’re packed off into a police van and sent off to doggy jail.

Mason, of course, claims he can’t believe that the beloved hounds could turn rogue like that. Charlie must have provoked them somehow, he muses. Columbo doesn’t think so. In fact he’s already got a pretty clear picture of what went down in Mason’s kitchen.

The wall phone receiver is dangling off the hook. Charlie must have been talking to someone. Couldn’t it just have been knocked off in the attack, Mason asks quite reasonably. No. Because the intermittent tone audible through the receiver is only heard when someone else has dialled in. This bothers the soft-hearted investigator immensely. Whoever rung the house must have heard Charlie’s death screams and done nothing about it. That’s stone cold!

Columbo Kim Cattrall
“Can you tell me what the cuddly-wuddly teddy bear heard when Dr Hunter was being torn to shreds?”

Someone had alerted the police, mind you, and that person is scorching young psychology student Joanne Nicholls, who lives in the guest house on Mason’s property. Columbo pays her a visit, and finds her cuddled up with favourite teddy bear, Sigmund, struggling to cope with the effects of a traumatic day.

During a brief interview, Columbo discovers that Joanne didn’t hear any phone ringing, although she had been swimming underwater so her testimony is largely valueless. He does, however, hear from her that Mason has spent many weekends away since the loss of his wife with just the dogs for company – an interesting snippet for Columbo to mentally file away.

As the Lieutenant departs, he finds Mason hovering on the threshold. It’s the lanky doctor’s turn to parley with Joanne – and it’s immediately clear he no longer wants her around. Turns out that Joanne has the hots for him, but he rejected her bid for them to be lovers. He suggests she ought to leave and go back home to her parents to help get over these dual setbacks, but she doesn’t seem to be in the mood to comply.

Columbo, meanwhile, is eliciting the help of police dog training ace Miss Cochrane. Through her, he learns that any dog can be trained to respond in a particular way to particular words – a feat she demonstrates with a police Alsatian, who can attack or shower with affection on command.

Mason makes a living out of control words. It certainly seems possible that his dogs could have been programmed to kill through the correct command word. There’s a long way to go in this case, but things are swiftly starting to compute for the Lieutenant. Only problem is that there are millions of possible command words to choose from. Where to begin?

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
Dog’s career as a protector was over before it began

Realising that his dogs are a potential weak link in his plan, Mason heads to the LAPD’s dog-handling unit to seek info on the fate of Laurel and Hardy. They’re scheduled for termination, but Mason receives ‘reassurance’ from a young officer that Columbo is doing everything in his power to win them a stay of execution. It’s the exact opposite of music to Mason’s ears.

Columbo comes down to meet Mason, and has a few questions he needs help with. Mason unhelpfully explains that he spent his weekends with the dogs walking on the beach and thinking. He also explains that straw found on the floor of his kitchen must have come from a crate of wine he recently received – and certainly not a straw-filled decoy Charlie he trained his dogs to kill in the kitchen, no sirree Bob!

Columbo pays Mason a visit at work the next day with more queries. He’s hooked on the idea that someone might have wanted to kill Mason himself through programming the dogs to attack him on command over a phone call. The detective even mentions the mysterious death of Mrs Mason, which was never solved. Could someone have it in for both of them?

Mason rejects Columbo’s hypothesis – and is starting to see through the Lieutenant’s clueless act. “You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat, happily running around the yard, digging holes all over the garden,” he says. “Only, you’re laying a minefield and wagging your tail.” As critical assessments of Columbo go, he’s pretty close to the mark.

Next stop for Columbo is chez Mason (again), and another conversation with Joanne. She reveals that, amongst his death screams, she heard Charlie calling out Eric’s name. The eagle-eyed sleuth then spots a hook erroneously fixed into the kitchen ceiling. What on earth could that be for? And finally, he notices an identifying mark on a rusty old spotlight Mason claims to have picked up on a weekend away. This leads him to a disused movie lot mocked up to look the Old West.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
For once the car matched its surroundings

Here, amidst tumbleweeds, rickety wooden shacks and a whole load of detritus, Columbo finds a hook hanging from an old saloon. There’s also evidence that something large was hung on a frame from this hook, and he even finds a broken speaker lying on the ground. Curiouser and curiouser. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive day’s work for LA’s finest officer!

His day gets better still when he encounters Mason at Charlie’s house later. The psychologist has snuck in to retrieve incriminating photos of Charlie with Mrs Mason – and he pockets them just as Columbo emerges, unannounced, from a bedroom. He’s puzzled to have found a trousers and waistcoat set, but no matching jacket. Mason offers no help and swiftly retreats.

The fiendish shrink makes a beeline straight to the guest house where he finds Joanne all packed up and ready to head for home after all. During a farewell chat, Joanne reveals that she knew about the affair between Charlie and Mrs Mason. Shocked that she kept it quiet, Mason swears her to silence, even dropping his hands threateningly to her throat. She’s saved from being his third victim by the arrival of Columbo.

He’s keen to cash in Mason’s promise of a character assessment, so over a bottle of good red wine the two men play a word association game – each trying to glean some crucial insight on the other. When the game is up, Mason walks Columbo to his car and the Lieutenant is amazed to see the actual gate from the movie Citizen Kane is one of the doctor’s most treasured possessions. He also happens to own the famous sled, emblazoned with the word ‘Rosebud’, hanging on his study wall.

Convivial chat over, Columbo has another try at coaxing a reaction out of Laurel and Hardy. He has secretly recorded the word association game, hoping against hope that Mason will have dropped his command word into conversation. He plays the tape to the dogs to no avail.

That’s until the dog handler’s phone rings. The dobermans’ heckles rise, and Columbo leaves the tape playing as he goes to speak to the judge to beg for a stay of execution for the dogs. And it’s during that conversation that the magic happens. The dogs go fully primal, transforming into Hounds of Hell. But what was the trigger?

Columbo Ed Begley Jr
A combination of cigar smoke and rustling sandwich wrapper drove the dogs wild

We find out the next day. After a sleepless night in the company of Miss Cochrane (all above board, you filthy-minded beast!), Columbo is ready to confront Mason – and he does so in confident fashion, rigging up a straw man dressed in Charlie’s clothes in Mason’s own kitchen.

He theorises that Mason programmed the dogs to kill Charlie and over a game of pool outlines to the doctor all the evidence he has amassed against him – not least the fact that he knows Mason took the photos from Charlie’s house, because he had taken one himself just before the doctor arrived.

He’s also managed to get hold of Mason’s ECG results from the day of the crime. At 3pm – the precise time Charlie was slain – there was a massive spike in Mason’s heart rate.

Slotting home pool balls with abandon, Columbo concludes that Mason committed the killing via the phone call. The detective goads the psychologist, saying: “I must say I found you disappointing. I mean, your incompetence. And for a man of your intelligence, sir, you got caught in a lot of stupid lies.”

Mason, however, believes he’ll be the one having the last laugh. “I think you deserve the whole package, Lieutenant,” he retorts, bringing the dogs to heel. “Everything you need to make your case complete.” Pointing at Columbo, Mason roars ‘ROSEBUD!’ At once the dogs are snarling monsters, who rush at and leap up on the detective, pushing him back on the pool table. Surely it’s a grisly end for our TV hero?

Columbo How to Dial a Murder pool
Even a bent cue didn’t stop Columbo spanking Dr Mason at pool

Not a bit of it! It’s Mason who gets a shock when he sees that instead of tearing Columbo’s throat out, they’re actually licking his face. You see, with Miss Cochrane’s help, the dogs were reprogrammed to ‘kiss not kill’ when they heard the code word. And Columbo had discovered the word when his voice-activated tape recorder had picked up Mason’s reference to ‘Rosebud’ during their conversation about Citizen Kane.

Thoroughly outmatched, Mason admits defeat. Columbo, meanwhile, makes one last, failed attempt to pot a pool ball using WC Fields’ bent cue as credits roll…

How to Dial‘s best moment – kiss not kill

Columbo How to Dial a Murder gotcha
Columbo’s raincoat waterproofing was tested by a quart of doggy slobber

For the second episode in a row, a murderer attempts the unthinkable in doing their best to kill off the dear Lieutenant. Last time round it was Paul Gerard’s poisoned glass of wine, but this time it’s a far more robust effort: Dr Mason is hoping to see Columbo torn to ribbons by his attack dogs.

We know that Columbo has figured out great swathes of the case (including motive and opportunity), but we don’t know yet that he’s entirely cracked the code word that controls the murderous mood of the dobermans. So he has to wheedle it out of Mason, whom he expertly manoeuvers into a corner to force the doctor’s hand.

Believing in his own mental superiority until the last, Mason indeed applies the final evidence eluding the Lieutenant, calling out ‘Rosebud’ and ordering the dogs to attack. Given that the viewer hasn’t seen how Columbo reprogrammed the dogs to ‘kiss not kill’ when they heard the command word, this is a supremely tense moment that really gets the blood pumping.

My thoughts on How to Dial a Murder

To give the writers of Columbo‘s seventh season due credit, they came up with some delightfully creative murder methods to keep viewers guessing. Three prior episodes have served up an airtight safe and blow fish poison as murder weapons alongside a common-or-garden shooting – and they pushed the boat out again here with pre-programmed killer dogs.

It’s a gruesome and terrifying method of killing that’s unique to the series, making it a very memorable murder for Columbo fans. But if I’m being totally honest, I find that the rest of the episode struggles to live up to this level of promise and excitement, and ultimately delivers one of the least thrilling cases of the classic era.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
The Mason vs Columbo blink battle went on for a 7 hours before the Doc realised the detective was cheating by relying on his glass eye

The Lieutenant himself arguably summarises my own feelings towards this episode best when he describes Dr Mason as ‘disappointing’ and ‘incompetent’. Those two adjectives rather sum up to me why this episode is no fun to watch: Mason is a lifeless killer whose carelessness hands the case to Columbo on a plate. It hardly makes for a satisfying spectacle.

I keep it simple when reviewing and ranking Columbo episodes: I want to be entertained and enjoy the viewing experience. It’s one reason why By Dawn’s Early Light, admittedly a brilliantly written, filmed and performed piece of television, is less to my liking than a more accessible, rib-tickling tale such as Double Shock or Negative Reaction.

How to Dial a Murder combines the cardinal Columbo sins of a boring killer and an open-and-shut case. There’s no thrill of the chase at all. And worse, there’s negligible chemistry between the leads.

How to Dial a Murder ultimately delivers one of the least thrilling cases of the classic era.”

Cast as Dr Eric Mason, Nicol Williamson makes for an interesting study. Legendary British playwright John Osborne him as “the greatest actor since Marlon Brando”. Similarly, revered Irish writer, poet and theatre director Samuel Beckett said Williamson was “touched by genius”. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I am saying his performance here doesn’t justify any such grand statements. It’s a very flat effort.

Williamson’s Mason is a charisma-free zone and I haven’t felt less interested in a Columbo killer since Jose Ferrer’s Dr Cahill in season 3’s Mind Over Mayhem. I accept that the series needs killers of all personality types, but compare Williamson’s turn to the joie de vivre of Jack Cassidy, the simmering rage of Robert Culp, the cheekiness of Ruth Gordon or the dangerous mania of Laurence Harvey and there’s nothing to write home about.

I find it interesting to note that when Williamson was interviewed about his Columbo experiences by Mark Dawidziak for The Columbo Phile book in the 1980s that he could barely remember his appearance here. He had undergone a divorce in 1977 and claimed he had taken the role because he “had to have the money”. He certainly doesn’t seem to have been the most enthusiastic of participants.

Columbo Nicol Williamson
“Can we get this over with? I’ve got a divorce to pay for.”

A double murderer who’s also willing to let his supposedly cherished pets be put to sleep to protect his own back ought to be a seriously loathsome presence. On-screen, Mason is sadistic, sure, not to mention more than a little sinister, but I don’t feel anything when watching him other than a mild sense of ennui – even though he’s arguably got a better motive for murder than most.

The best Columbo killers wring an emotional response from the audience. We can love to hate the likes of the slimy Paul Gerard and the uncompromising Milo Janus just as we can sympathise with the terminally ill Grace Wheeler and the oppressed Beth Chadwick. Mason’s character can perhaps best be described in a single word: Meh.

This absence of charisma makes it easier to notice the weaknesses inherent in Mason’s crime – and the distinct lack of effort he put in to suitably covering his tracks. Admittedly Columbo catches on to the programmed dogs’ idea more quickly than anyone could rightly assume, but Mason could have been a lot more thorough in stemming the flow of evidence.

Certainly it was clumsy to bring home an incriminating spotlight back from the abandoned movie lot, then leave it conspicuously round his house for a snooping detective to uncover. The same applies to unplugging the living room phone and leaving straw from the Charlie dummy on his kitchen floor (terrible sweeping skillz, Doc). Far worse, though, was the idiotic decision to remove the photos of Hunter and Mrs Mason from Hunter’s desk drawer after the murder was committed.

If Mason knew they were there, why not remove them all beforehand and deny police the chance of stumbling onto them? His long-term revenge plot against wife and friend appears to have been time consuming and intricately plotted, making his amateurish oversights seem at best a display of incongruous lackadaisicality and at worse poor writing.

Indeed it’s interesting that Columbo referenced the ‘incompetence’ of these shortcomings verbally during the gotcha scene, because it’s exactly as if he’s addressing viewer concerns about the logicality of the writing. I have no proof of it, but I can imagine those lines were added in to the script late on at Falk’s request to cover the episode’s back.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
In this showdown, Columbo ran out an easy winner

As for Falk, I’d say his performance is OK but no more than that. It’s a much more restrained turn than his overcooked, irritating theatrics in Murder Under Glass, but is a few steps further down the road towards pastiche than we saw in Make Me a Perfect Murder. Similar to a lot of what’s going on here, there’s little that stands out in his work.

How to Dial‘s Columbo seems more like a force of nature than a real human being. It’s not uncommon for killers to run into the Lieutenant here and there throughout the course of an episode, but here he pops up everywhere Dr Mason is. Can we read into this that he’s embodying the revered behavioural psychologist’s conscience? Perhaps, although I’m not convinced Mason has a conscience.

More likely than not, his continual presence at Mason’s shoulder is the episode’s way of showing us that Columbo is playing mental games with the doctor – a theme of the episode that underscores much of the action, whether that be the control of the dogs, Mason’s supposed mastery over weaker minds and the cerebral sparring he enjoys with the Lieutenant.

“As for Falk, I’d say his performance is OK but no more than that.”

Their confrontation ought to have been a firecracker, with both men ‘playing the game’ as they say, but it peters out rather than sizzles as Mason’s trail of breadcrumbs leads Columbo directly to his door. There is, however, a nice exchange between the two as they enjoy a bottle of good wine by a blazing fire and endeavour to get the measure of each other through a word association game.

And even though that contest ends with honours even, Columbo’s bright idea to record the conversation with a voice-activated tape recorder ultimately pays dividends and allows him to outflank and rout his celebrated opponent and indulge in a somewhat melodramatic reveal over a game of pool at Mason’s home.

I wouldn’t rate the gotcha as a classic, especially given Mason’s negligence throughout, but there’s something satisfying about watching Columbo symbolically slam home pool balls as he brings his adversary’s world crashing down. And of course that does lead to Mason’s efforts to rid himself of Columbo via the attack dogs – arguably the only really satisfying moment of the whole episode.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
“You’ll have to speak up… I can’t hear you over the snarling and screaming… Hello? HELLOOO-OOOO?”

The murder itself is also worthy of mention due to its unique nature. The dogs we’ve seen in Columbo up to now have been almost entirely of the cute and cuddly persuasion, so it’s quite a novelty to see some truly terrifying killing machines baring their fangs. Indeed, I attribute my lifelong wariness around dobermans to having seen How to Dial a Murder at an early age. I’d certainly never say ‘Rosebud’ in earshot of one, just in case…

I wonder, too, whether How to Dial‘s murder method was an influence to Thomas Harris when he used an eerily similar technique – only with killer pigs – in his book Hannibal as a prospective fate for Dr Hannibal Lecter. His arch-villain in that book was one Mason Vergere. Coincidence? Surely not. If you’re reading this, Thomas, fill us in on your secret Columbo fandom!

Elsewhere, it’s good to see two rising stars of the televisual world given roles here: namely Kim Cattrall and Ed Begley Jr. As the fragile psychology student Joanne Nicholls, 21-year-old Cattrall has long referred to this as a breakthrough role for her on her journey to Sex & The City mega stardom via Mannequin and Star Trek VI.

Spurned by Dr Mason, she’s in very real danger of becoming his third victim towards the end of the episode as his hands rest on her throat while he warns her against ever telling anyone about the affair between Dr Hunter and Mrs Mason. She has a very lucky escape when Columbo comes a-knocking.

It is a rather odd relationship between Mason and Joanne, mind you. She has developed a romantic attachment to him, but he’s not interested – perhaps another example of Mason sadistically gaining pleasure through control of another being. Interesting, too, that Mrs Mason apparently sanctioned Joanne’s move into the guest house. Perhaps she was too occupied by romping with Dr Hunter to care that a bikini-clad hottie was eyeing up her husband…?

Begley Jr, meanwhile, in the small role as Officer Stein, is notable in that he is one of only two Columbo guest stars to be cast as both a police officer and a murderer in different episodes. He would return as Irving Krutch in 1994’s Undercover, joining Dabney Coleman in the exclusive club after the latter starred as a sergeant in 1973’s Double Shock and a murderous attorney in 1991’s Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
Gotta work on that neck massage technique, Doc

We must also not overlook the presence of the lovable ‘Dog’, who adds a splash of fun to an otherwise largely humour-free episode when Columbo queries whether the basset hound has what it takes to become a guard dog capable of protecting Mrs Columbo while the Lieutenant works night shifts.

Predictably the slovenly mutt doesn’t seem cut out for such a life, instead preferring to give Columbo a good old licking when urged to ‘kill’ in what is a lighthearted foreshadowing of the episode finale.

How to Dial a Murder is also a loving nod towards the golden age of cinema, playing ample homage to comedy great WC Fields, Citizen Kane, classic horror flicks and more through Mason’s collection of movie memorabilia. The irony of it all is that Mason, for all his focus on mental control, can’t resist feeding his addiction by picking up a baby spotlight that will ultimately doom him, the silly boy. Perhaps he doesn’t practice what he preaches?

There’s not much else to say. For the most part, How to Dial leaves me so unmoved that I’m struggling to even come up with ‘side-splitting’ one liners about its shortcomings. I won’t claim that it’s a dreadful piece of television, but with a dialled-in performance from a dreary antagonist and a case so straightforward that even Sergeant Grover could crack it, How to Dial a Murder is a million miles from being considered the Citizen Kane of the Columbo opus.

Did you know?

Despite his continual reliance on his trusty raincoat, How to Dial a Murder is one of only three classic era episodes in which we see the Lieutenant actually caught in the rain.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
The mac looks about as water resistant as a tissue here!

The only other times we see Columbo getting a drenching are during his visit to gloomy London in 1972’s Dagger of the Mind, and in The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case four years later, when he instead shelters beneath an umbrella as the heavens open.

The episode’s multiple nods to the golden age of cinema were more ostentatiously recognised in the original version of the story, too, which was rather heavy-handedly entitled The Laurel and Hardy WC Fields Citizen Kane Murder Case.

How I rate ’em

How to Dial a Murder is one of the first episodes I can remember watching, but unlike several others in that category that I still treasure (Bye-Bye Sky High, Try & Catch Me, Deadly State of Mind chief amongst them), I’ve never warmed to this one – largely because of Williamson’s uninteresting portrayal of Eric Mason.

There may be elements of it that are technically ‘better’ than a number of episodes rated immediately above it in my chart but in terms of personal enjoyment, this one leaves me stone cold and it’s one I almost never choose to view from my collection.

Check out any of my previous reviews via the links below.

  1. The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
  2. Suitable for Framing
  3. Publish or Perish
  4. Double Shock
  5. Murder by the Book
  6. Negative Reaction
  7. A Friend in Deed
  8. Try & Catch Me
  9. Death Lends a Hand
  10. A Stitch in Crime
  11. Now You See Him
  12. Double Exposure
  13. Lady in Waiting
  14. Troubled Waters
  15. Any Old Port in a Storm
  16. Prescription: Murder 
  17. A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
  18. An Exercise in Fatality
  19. Make Me a Perfect Murder
  20. Identity Crisis
  21. Swan Song
  22. The Most Crucial Game
  23. Etude in Black
  24. By Dawn’s Early Light
  25. Candidate for Crime
  26. Greenhouse Jungle
  27. Playback
  28. Forgotten Lady
  29. Requiem for a Falling Star
  30. Blueprint for Murder
  31. Fade in to Murder
  32. Ransom for a Dead Man
  33. Murder Under Glass —C-List starts here—
  34. A Case of Immunity
  35. Dead Weight
  36. The Most Dangerous Match
  37. Lovely but Lethal 
  38. How to Dial a Murder
  39. Short Fuse ———D-List starts here—-
  40. A Matter of Honor
  41. Mind Over Mayhem
  42. Old Fashioned Murder
  43. Dagger of the Mind
  44. Last Salute to the Commodore —Z-List starts here
Columbo Dog
Did the nasty man barely rate this in his top 40? KILL!

Love or hate How to Dial a Murder, share your opinions of it below. I’m aware that many fans enjoy it a whole lot more than I do, so if that’s you please let us all know what it is that floats your boat.

The next episode marks the end of a televisual era as the Columbo curtain falls for what looked like forever in the form of IRA drama The Conspirators. A blockbuster finale for the classic era, or about as much fun as a live ‘limerick-off’ with a whisky-totting drunk in an Irish pub (which, come to think of it, actually sounds like a riot!)? Check back soon…

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Columbo WC Fields
Bumbling genius pays homage to bumbling genius
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