12 June 2019

The True Crime Book That Spawned an Industry

The Black Donnellys
Thomas P. Kelley
Toronto: Harlequin, 1962
158 pages
Oh you who hail from Ontario
Know the tale of the Donnellys Oh
Died at the hands of a mob that night
Every child and man by the oil torch light

                         — Steve Earle, 'Justice in Ontario' (2002)
It's likely because I hail from Quebec that I didn't know much about the Donnellys until well into adulthood. My introduction came through a work colleague when I was living in Toronto. Together, we made up a very small department in a very large book retailer – so large that it had its own publishing arm.

We were it.

After a few months working together, he suggested we reprint Orlo Miller's The Donnellys Must Die. I nodded in agreement, though Miller meant nothing to me, and I'd never heard of the book. The new edition of The Donnellys Must Die we ushered back into print sold twelve thousand copies. It's success led us to consider reviving Miller's next book, Death to the Donnellys. We joked about commissioning a third book to be titled Die, Donnellys, Die!

What Steve Earle refers to as "the tale of the Donnellys" is infused with bloodshed of a sort that we Canadians like to think of as foreign. It begins with the 1842 arrival of Irish farming couple James and Johannah Donnelly in what is today Lucan, Ontario. They had with them a son, who had been named after his father. Six more boys and a daughter would follow, all born on Canadian soil their parents had cleared. The respective births were punctuated by violence and murder. First to be killed was neighbour Patrick Farrell – "John Farrell," according to Kelley – whom patriarch James hit on the head with a handspike. The murderer then hid in the woods, and dared work his fields disguised in his wife's frocks:
Johannah was almost as tall and heavy as her husband; appareled in her clothes, Donnelly was taken for her by those traveling the road and seeing him in the fields, and he was able to get in the seeding. Later, still dressed in women's clothing, he brought in the crops, working with his sons, and did the fall plowing.
Murder by handspike aside, this episode is the lightest part of the Donnelly story. Kelley doesn't do as much with it as I thought he might, though he does go for laughs here and there throughout the book. Poor Johanna receives the brunt:
She looked like and should've been a man; her sex undoubtably robbing the bare-knuckle prize ring of a prospective champion. In later years she sprouted a miniature Vandyke, wore red flannels, and told of never having been "much of a beauty." Her picture proves the words to be an understatement.
In Kelley's account, the matriarch directed many of the misdeeds attributed to her offspring. Beginning in 1855, various members of the Donnelly family were charged with larceny, robbery, assault, and attempted murder, amongst other crimes. The events that most troubled this reader concerned animal mutilation. It all came to an end on February 4, 1880, when a mob descended on the Donnelly farmhouse, beat its residents to death, and set the building alight. They then moved on to the home of second son William Donnelly, where they killed third son, John Donnelly. 

Steve Earle is wrong. Not every child and man died that night. There was a survivor in John O'Connor, a hired farm boy, who hid under a bed when the mob broke in. No doubt that mob would've murdered him, too, just as they did Bridget Donnelly, James' twenty-two year-old niece, who was newly arrived from Ireland. No one was ever convicted of the slaughter.

That Kelley records John O'Connor's surname as "Connor" is typical. He made his living as a speedy magazine and paperback writer. He had a reputation as a man who could be relied upon to fill pages in a pinch. The Kelley technique is on full display in this passage:
The writer first heard of the Donnelly feud – bits of it, at least – more than twenty years ago when travelling around the Lucan area. Twenty at the time – ah, my lost youth – the history of Lucan and its violences of bygone years did not interest him. A pair of blue eyes in the nearby village of Exeter, did. Eventually marrying the owner of the eyes, and as time went on, learning more of the feud, it became apparent at last, however, that mere hearsay, a thorough knowledge of the Lucan district or even the tales of oldtimers, would not be enough to write the true story of the Donnellys.  Seemingly endless hours of research were and did become necessary – the reading of old files, old newspapers, police and court records, etc.
It's unlikely that the seemingly endless hours Kelley spent researching the Donnellys were many, but they were lucrative. They resulted in "The Donnelly Feud," a 1947 article written for New Liberty Magazine. It was reprinted in his book Famous Canadian Crimes (Toronto: Collins White Circle, 1949) and then reworked as "The Terrible Donnelly Feud" for his next book, Bad Men of Canada (Toronto: Arrow, 1950). The Black Donnellys, which followed four years later, is said to have sold more than a million copies.

The Black Donnellys is not the best place to begin reading about the family and its fate; I recommend The Donnellys Must Die or, better still, The Donnelly Album by Ray Fazakas. Kelley's book is a fun read, but is wholly unreliable – which is not to say that it is without value. What I find most remarkable about the book has less to do with its contents than it does its impact. Sure, those who hail from Ontario know the tale of the Donnellys, but this wasn't always so. I don't doubt that Kelley (1905-1982), an Ontario boy who toured the province with his medicine man father, claims he hadn't heard of the family until "travelling around the Lucan area" at the age of twenty. After they faded from the headlines, very little was written about the Donnellys. Published a full seventy-four years after the bloody events of February 4, 1880, The Black Donnellys was the first book about the family and its fate. It's inaccuracies and – here I'm betting – commercial success encouraged Miller to write The Donnellys Must Die. More than a dozen Donnelly books have followed.

In this way, it is Kelley's greatest achievement as a writer. Would that we could all have such influence. He's owed a debt of gratitude.

Postscript: I left the very large book retailer in 2001, and began writing books that were published under noms de plume. Eight years later, when living in the Ontario town of St Marys, roughly twenty-five kilometres east of Lucan, I was commissioned to write a YA book on unsolved Canadian mysteries. A chapter on the Donnellys – "Who Killed the Donnellys?" – seemed a given. The St Marys Public Library then held seven books on the family, each of which was represented on the shelves by a block of wood bearing its title. Patrons interested in checking out a volume brought the appropriate block to the front desk. This system had been put in place to prevent theft.

Object: A paperback original, The Black Donnellys was first published in 1954 by Harlequin. My well-read copy, a seventh printing, was won for $7.50 in a 2009 auction at a St Marys, Ontario, thrift store.

Access: A 2002 Globe & Mail story reported that The Black Donnellys had to that point sold over one million copies in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. I point out that that same article refers to The Black Donnellys as a novel. The only American edition (right) is a 1955 paperback published by Signet. I've found no trace of a UK edition.

The Black Donnellys helped build Harlequin. The original 1954 printing was followed by fourteen others. The last was in April, 1968, long after Harlequin had (otherwise) come to focus exclusively on romances. Subsequent editions have been published by Greywood, Pagurian, Firefly, and Darling Terrace (it's current publisher).

Unsurprisingly, dozens of used copies are listed for sale online. Prices begin at US$2.99.

Easily found in academic libraries, but uncommon in the public. I suggest instituting the St Marys Public Library block system.

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27 May 2019

Gone Fishin' (without Frank and Joe Hardy)

The Phantom Freighter
Franklin W. Dixon [pseud. Amy McFarlane]
New York: Grosset & Dunlap, [c. 1958]
216 pages

I think I read a Hardy Boys book in elementary school. Was "Clock" in the title? It could be I'm wrong. It could be I'm thinking of the Three Investigators. Truth be told, I never cared much about Frank and Joe; not even when played by Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy. My interest in the Hardy Boys – very limited – came later in life, when I learned that fellow Canadian Leslie McFarlane had penned their earliest adventures. In fact, he wrote the very first Hardy Boys mystery: The Tower Treasure (1927).

McFarlane churned out twenty in total, but The Phantom Freighter isn't one of them. The twenty-sixth Hardy Boys Mystery, it stands alone as the only novel ever written by wife Amy. One story is that Leslie was away on a fishing trip when the outline came in. Could that be true? In a 19 July 1946 letter to the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which commissioned the novel, Amy writes: "Was interrupted in the middle of the job by a dental operation that meant the loss of 22 teeth at one fell swoop."

Whose teeth isn't clear. Either way, I'd like to see it as a Heritage Minute.

Would The Phantom Freighter make for a good twelve minutes of television? I ask because the first half of the 27 December 1969 episode of The Hardy Boys animated series shares the same title. I haven't seen it, but can imagine the challenges in adapting the story for the small screen. The novel Amy McFarlane wrote involves arson, impersonation, blackmail, sabotage, fraud, theft, smuggling, forgery, counterfeiting, several kidnappings, several assaults, an attempted murder, a second attempted murder, a third attempted murder, a fourth attempted murder, and numerous examples of poor customer service.

What to leave out?

It begins with a letter sent Frank and Joe from a man named Thaddeus McClintock, who is staying at a local hotel. He's looking to meet the boys because they have their "feet on the ground." Then Aunt Gertrude arrives. Their father's headstrong sister, she's ready to move into the Hardy home and give up her "nomadic life." An expressman delivers her trunk, along with a carton that is not hers. She learns that her carton, containing "irreplaceable family papers," was left in error at a farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Frank and Joe head off, arriving at the address to find its barn ablaze. Joe risks his life in rescuing what he mistakenly believes to be the carton in question. Firefighters arrive, followed by the property owners. The appearance of the latter is coincidental; they've been away for several days. Next to arrive is the inept expressman, who reports that he was met at the farmhouse earlier in the day by a mysterious figure who called himself James Johnson. And then the boys are off to meet Thaddeus McClintock. A worn-out curmudgeon, "past middle age, and a little sloop-shouldered," he wishes to take a long trip with the two boys... as unattached men do.

This is rough sketch of the first sixteen pages. I wonder how it compares to the outline sent the McFarlanes. An awful lot happens in very few pages, rushed along by matter-of-fact prose and a police department that is as speedy as it is helpful:
From the hotel, the boys went to the police headquarters and talked to Chief Callig. He listened attentively, then reached for a telephone and asked for information about the motor launch Wasp. Apparently, little or none was available, for when the chief turned back to the boys, he said:
     "The launch doesn't seem to be listed. But we'll make some more inquiries."
It is, of course, Frank and Joe – not the police – who crack the case. Though there is no singular mystery in this Hardy Boys Mystery, Aunt Gertrude's missing carton and Thaddeus McClintock's curious desire for a lengthy getaway with the boys are both related to the phantom freighter of the title. This too is coincidental.

Fishing figures in the plot. Dentistry does not.

Favourite sentence:
"A man just made us a proposition and we have to do some thinking about it."
Second favourite sentence:
The Hardys were about to get into their car and drive home when Frank remembered that Mrs. Hardy had asked him to buy some socks and handkerchiefs for their father.  
Trivia: I don't remember the cartoon Hardy Boys, despite the series having its own Gold Key comic book. The cover of the second issue informs: "The Hardy Boys use their rock group as a 'cover' to solve spine-tingling mysteries!"

Here's something for those itching to hear Frank and Joe rock out:

Object: First published in 1947, it's likely that my copy dates from 1958. These are the clues:
  • the brown endpapers featured were introduced in 1958;
  • the list of Hardy Boys Mystery Stories printed on the front fly does not include The Mystery at Devil's Paw (1959).
Purchased in 2017 at London's Attic Books. Price: $1.00.

Access: The book I read features the original text. In 1970, a revised version edited by Priscilla Baker-Carr, first appeared. My understanding is that this is The Phantom Freighter being sold today. If I ever come across a copy, I'll  make a point of seeing whether this passage was made more contemporary:
Frank stopped the car in front of the hotel haberdashery again, and Hoe went in to purchase the socls and handkerchiefs for his father.
Hundreds of used copies of The Phantom Freighter are being sold online, the cheapest beginning at one American dollar. A first edition "according to the Carpentieri Bibliography (1947A-1)" is offered at one hundred American dollars. Pay no more than a buck.

13 May 2019

Grant Allen's Breezy Read

An Army Doctor's Romance
Grant Allen
London: Raphall Tuck & Sons, [1893]
113 pages

The publisher lowers expectations with a note presenting this novella as part of its Breezy Library, "an attempt to dissociate a shilling from a shocker." Rafael Tuck & Sons would like the reader to know that this is no Shilling Shocker, rather it is a "Shilling Soother." The unpleasant elements of other Grant Allen tales – adultery (A Splendid Sin), fraud (Miss Cayley's Adventures), arson (The Devil's Die), rail disasters (What's Bred in the Bone), suicide (Under Sealed Orders), assassination (For Maimie's Sake), poisoning (A Terrible Inheritance), and cannibalism (The Cruise of the Albatross) – will not feature. No man will be butted off a cliff by a savage moorland ram (Michael's Crag).

I don't believe I've read so slight a story as An Army Doctor's Romance since childhood. We open on "fresh English rosebud" Muriel Grosvenor, the object of affection of two men serving in the Royal West Badenochs. Oliver Cameron, the first we meet, is a handsome doctor of modest means. His rival, Captain Wilfred Burgess, is just as handsome, and has the advantage of being enormously wealthy. Of the two, Muriel's mother prefers the latter, but the heart wants what the heart wants. During an English garden party on an idyllic English summer's day, the army doctor professes his love and proposes marriage. Muriel in turn declares her love, but stops short of accepting the proposal for the reason that she promised her mother she would not. Her promise to Oliver Cameron is that she will accept no other proposals.

Thwarted by scheming widow Mrs Talbot, who threw Muriel and the doctor together, Capt Burgess has no opportunity to make his own play for Muriel's hand, and so has to resort to a proposal sent by Royal Mail. Mrs Grosvenor pressures her daughter into accepting by post. After the response has been sent, Muriel writes a quick follow-up, breaking off the engagement and "blaming herself not a little for her moral cowardice." But she misses the postman! To make matters worse, Dr Cameron, Capt Burgess, and the rest of the Royal West Badenochs have shipped out to deal with the Matabeles in Matabeleland!

Curiously, surprisingly, in something touted as a "Shilling Soother," there is unpleasantness in the form of a Matabele attack on the Badenochs. Cameron is captured and Burgess is injured horribly. Each thinks the other has been killed. The doctor is released by the enemy and eventually makes his way back to England. Meanwhile, the captain is nursed back to health by Miriam, the beautiful daughter of a famous missionary. Burgess falls in love... but what to do about his engagement to Muriel? The situation is resolved with ease, and everyone goes off happily.

Breezy indeed, An Army Doctor's Romance passed before my eyes without once causing me to pause and give thought. Following Eden Phillpotts'  Summer Clouds and Other Stories (1893), it was the third volume in the Breezy Library. Only three more followed.

I'm not surprised.

Trivia I: By far the least imaginative of the fourteen Allen novels and novellas I've read to date, I was surprised to discover that An Army Doctor's Romance was well-received by contemporary reviewers.

The Publishers' Circular (Christmas 1893)
The most puzzling was a review in The Speaker (25 November 1893), which describes the plot as "distinctly ingenious."

Trivia II: In reading this novel – written for the money, surely – I came to believe that Allen was having some fun with the Breezy Library name because the words "breeze" and "breezy" appear four times in the text. However, research revealed that the words appear no less than nineteen times in the The Devil's Die (1890), my favourite Allen novel.

Object and Access: An attractive, somewhat unusual volume, the image and writing on the flexible chromolithographic cover are raised. The character depicted is Dr Oliver Cameron. His actions are a mystery to me. The interior features seven more images. All are by military artist Harry Payne.

Six of our university libraries hold copies, but not Library and Archives Canada. I've found five copies listed for sale online US$70 to US$250. I won my copy for US$16.99 in an online auction. As is often the case with things Allen, I was the only bidder.

The novella can be read online through this link thanks to the University of Alberta and the Internet Archive.

I don't recommend it.

06 May 2019

A Brief Review of a Book Bought in Error

Exit Barney McGee
Claire Mackay
Richmond Hill, ON: Scholastic-TAB, 1979
146 pages

We've all been there. It's the dying minutes of a book sale, volunteers are exhausted, and you're are encouraged to fill up a box for ten dollars... two dollars... whatever you'd care to donate. You scan the tables, scooping up anything remotely interesting, casting not so much as a glance. This is how I came to buy Exit Barney McGee, a title I read as Exit D'Arcy McGee. The fleeting glimpse of the cover image had me thinking it was a kid's time travel novel.


Exit Barney McGee is not a time travel novel, though kids today will find sentences like this old-fashioned, if not puzzling: "He dialled slowly, letting his finger travel backward with each number, muffling the insect buzz of the release."

Truth be told, I found the novel old-fashioned; not because my family had push-button phones in 1979, but because the story's beginning was all too familiar.

Thirteen-year-old Barney McGee was raised the only child of a single mother – his father having abandoned the family when he was a toddler – but he'd been happy enough. For ten years, it was just mother and child. When Barney grew older, he shouldered some of her burden with money earned through a paper route. Though a boy, he was very much the man of the house... until his mom met and married Mr Conrad, Barney's grade six teacher. Now, a year later, they've been joined by baby girl named Sarah.

Barney longs for the days when it was just him and his mom. The two used to go to the movies on Friday nights; now Mr Conrad takes her out for an evening of bridge with the school vice-principal and his wife.

Barney has had enough. He has a vague memory of a letter his father sent his mother, and rifles thorough his mother's lingerie drawer for a cache of letters. There he finds a scrawl sent from Toronto  by his dad. Ten years have passed, but never mind. A mouse named Saki joins the chip on Barney's shoulder as he sets out for the Hogtown address.

I was curious as to how things would develop. The beginning of Barney's story was so unoriginal that I anticipated some sort of twist. Sadly, Exit Barney McGee follows the road most travelled. There is – no surprise – a smidgen of comedy and adventure en route. A kindly lady offers a ride, but skids to a stop when Saki scurries across her pretty pink skirt. Deeper danger rears its head when Barney accepts a ride from Harry, a seventeen-year-old who is fleeing a botched mugging in a stolen car. Harry sees the runaway as his next victim, but the car runs off the road and Barney and Saki are thrown free.

Because Barney's is such a familiar story, I spoil nothing in revealing that the reunion between father and son falls far short of the boy's dreams.

From beginning to end, Exit Barney McGee was conventional; the only thing that stuck out was the entrance of kindly Nell Weatherston. A social worker, Nell has the task of dealing with Harry, who is revealed to be an orphan who has been abused by his uncles. Another of Nell's cases concerns an eleven-year-old who steals gifts for friends. At home, she is beaten by her patents. Nell, the police, and the hospital staff recognize that not all children are loved.  

Sadly, in today's Canada, this too seems old-fashioned.

Object and access: A slim, cheaply-produced paperback. My copy is a first printing. As far as I can tell, the novel was reprinted in 1987 and 1992. It benefits from five interior illustrations by David Simpson. Curiously, the cover references Toronto's Carleton Street, which is not mentioned in the novel. Used copies can be found online for as little as US$5.00. Mine is signed!

22 April 2019

Millar's Experiment in Springtime in Springtime

Experiment in Springtime
Collected Millar: Dawn of Domestic Suspense
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2017

Margaret Millar's seventh novel, Experiment in Springtime is the first to not feature a dead body. The original dust jacket describes it as a love story, but the design suggests otherwise.

Experiment in Springtime is a dark tale of an unhealthy marriage. Charles Pearson, the husband, is himself unhealthy. In April, he arrived home from work complaining about a headache. Martha Pearson, the wife, gave him two aspirins, which sent him into anaphylactic shock.

Well, that was Dr MacNeil's diagnosis, anyway.

For several days, it looked as if Charles might die. Dr MacNeil did what he could, and Martha spent many hours playing nurse by her husband's bedside. Not to worry, though he's still bedridden, the novel begins with Charles well on the road to recovery. Convalescence has given Charles time to reflect on his five-year-old marriage to Martha. She doesn't love him – of that he is sure – but he hopes that she one day will. Did she ever love him? Martha has changed. Gone is the young woman of twenty-one who accepted Charles' proposal, replaced with an prematurely middle-aged matron for whom duty and appearance are paramount. Martha dresses the part, always in black, with hats as sensible and durable as her "low-heeled black suede oxfords." The car Charles presented as a birthday present is too sleek, too ostentatious; in her opinion, it doesn't match "the personality she had selected for herself."

Others living in the Pearson house – which was built for Martha – are more keen on Charles. The servants like him, in part because he's easygoing and not terribly demanding. Lily, the blushing young maid, has a bit of a crush on her employer. Laura, Martha's sixteen-year-old kid sister, likes that Charles doesn't treat her like a child. Mrs Shaw, Martha's widowed mother, is just shy of being indifferent; she's happiest when alone in her room counting tangerine pits. Everyone, Martha included, agrees that Charles is a highly intelligent man; after all, he's on the board of directors of the Matson Trust Company.

Though Charles and Martha's marriage is at the centre of this novel, scenes featuring the couple are few. Early in the novel, quite unexpectedly, Charles accuses his wife of having tried to murder him. Concerned with keeping up appearances – the staff are around – she places a hand over his mouth. Charles bites her, drawing blood. The following day, with chauffeur Forbes, Charles departs for rest at some remote, unknown location.

Enter – or re-enter – Steve Ferris, Martha's former fiancee, now back from the war. She rents him the vacated chauffeur's flat above the garage. Given Martha's obsession with what others think, it might seem an odd thing to do – but she has her motivations, not the least of which is spite.

Experiment in Springtime does not have a dead body, though the appearance of one wouldn't have been at all jarring. There is danger in this novel in the form of a denial of mental illness. It's all to do with ignorance and the desire to maintain – I'll say it again – appearances.

It's frightening to think how little things have changed in the seven decades since it was written.

Dedication: "To my husband, Kenneth Millar."

Trivia: Early in the novel, Steve is invited to dinner at the home of his aunt and his spinster cousin, leading to this exchange:
"Well Bea," he said. "How's business?"
     "Oh, fine." She sat opposite him, smoothing her dress carefully over her knees. "Same as usual."
     "I thought the old bas— tyrant would have made you vice president by this time."
     "It's all right. You can say bastard as long as mother's not around."
     They both laughed, but he knew he had offended her by changing the word to "tyrant." It was like moving her back a generation.
     She said crisply, "Remember the cartoon in Esquire years ago? 'I may be an old maid, but I'm not a fussy old maid.' Well, that's me."
The cartoon to which Bea refers appeared in the May 1934 Esquire. It isn't quite as she remembers.

Object and Access: Experiment in Springtime was first published in 1947 by Random House. There was no second printing, and no other editions followed. Its inclusion in the second volume of the Collected Millar marked the novel's first appearance in print in seven decades.

Curiously, a German translation was published in 1995 under the title Umgarnt. Its cover uses a detail of Felix Vallotton's At the Café (1909). One wonders why.

The Random House first is surprisingly uncommon. As of this writing, four copies are offered for sale online. At US$35, the cheapest is a Good copy that once belonged to collector and bibliographer Adrian Goldstone. Tempting, but the ones to buy are a signed Near Fine copy in Very Good jacket (US$45) and a Very Good copy in Very Good jacket inscribed by Millar to her sister Dorothy (US$375).

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21 April 2019

'The Easter Winds' by Lilian Leveridge

Easter verse written in the midst of the Great War by Anglican Lilian Leveridge from her debut collection Over the Hills of Home and Other Poems (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1918).

                         The little winds of dawning,
                              Long centuries ago,
                         Went straying in a garden
                              With bursting buds aglow.
                         A wondrous tale they whispered
                              Of One Who loved, Who died
                         For men whose hatred pierced Him
                              In hands and feet and side. 
                         Bright angels told His story:
                              The winds caught up the song;
                         On viewless wings forever
                              They bear the strain along.
                         The flowers await His coming;
                              For love of Him they bloom—
                         The fadeless Rose of Sharon.
                              That blossomed from the tomb. 
                         O little winds of Easter
                              That blow amid the hills,
                         With lily perfume laden
                              And breath of daffodils.
                         Go, blow across the ocean.
                              And carry to "our boys,"
                         Our truest and our dearest,
                              A gift of Easter joys— 
                         The sweetness of the blossoms,
                              The music of the bells,
                         That, hour by hour unwearied,
                              The glad evangel tells—
                         Of life that blooms unfading,
                              Of love that cannot die,
                         Of rest and peace abiding
                              Beyond our shrouding sky. 
                         O viewless Easter angels
                              That wander round the world,
                         Where, reeking red with carnage,
                              The bolts of hate are hurled,
                         Where, rank on rank, the crosses
                              Stand silent on the hill,
                         Go, plant the amaryllis.
                              The rose, the daflfodil. 
                         Then all the winds of Easter
                              Shall bear upon their wings
                         To wounded hearts the essence
                              Of all life's sweetest things.
                         "The Lord is risen!" shall echo
                              From shore to farthest shore,
                         And Love shall reign eternal,
                              And pain shall be no more.

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