James Ellroy, the Master of Mayhem, Moves in on the Mile High City

On a quiet Monday night at Elway’s Cherry Creek, it’s hard to miss James Ellroy. A trim six-three, clean-domed and fond of Hawaiian shirts, eyes blazing, he’s easily the most animated talker in the room. He’s not particularly loud or demonstrative, but he is passionate, holding forth on love and death and popular culture while attacking a slab of prime rib.

The topic of the moment is what America’s most celebrated living crime novelist thinks of the Great American Crime Movie — or not-so-great, in Ellroy’s estimation. He likes a good movie as much as the next guy, he says, but few of them measure up to his exacting standards. Chinatown is overrated, he declares. He’ll give a passing grade to The Godfather Part II, but he’s not so keen on I and III. Even David Fincher’s Zodiac, his favorite crime flick of recent decades, is flawed.

Don’t get him started on the adaptations of his own bestsellers, The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. And the older stuff? You might think that a writer who’s devoted much of his creative life to an epic evocation of the Los Angeles of the 1940s and 1950s would be a film-noir fanatic, but the classics come in for a drubbing, too. The romance-from-hell of Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past, okay, that gets a pass. The rest?

“Film noir had this delirious run from 1945 to 1959,” he notes. “But a lot of the films, beneath it all, were corny and sentimental. Not very many of them were good.”

The conversation twists and jitterbugs, touching on favorite directors and miscast roles, current projects and Old Hollywood dirt. A waitress drops by to check on dessert orders, and Ellroy slips into easy banter with her. He’s a natural performer, capable of delivering bits of brazen patter and shtick with effortless grace.

"I’m a very quiet-living, church-going guy."

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Ellroy asks her if she has any crack cocaine. She reports that they’re out. He asks for heroin. That, too, is unavailable. He pouts.

“Dog food?” he asks.

She shakes her head. He settles for a strawberry-lime sorbet. In another context, the exchange would seem more hinky than funny, but after a few visits from Ellroy, the staff at Elway’s seems at ease with the self-proclaimed demon dog of American literature, as if he’d been haunting the place for years.

Ellroy slipped into Denver with the stealth of a ninja three months ago. Like a lot of California transplants, he’s settled in quickly, snagging a booth at Elway’s and an occasional gig at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Littleton introducing a series of crime films, including upcoming screenings of Zodiac and Vertigo, with his usual blend of acumen, obsession, irreverence and provocation. But the real reason for his move to Denver is deeply personal: a reconciliation with his second wife, novelist Helen Knode. Although the couple divorced in 2006, Ellroy has frequently described Knode as his best friend. Now they’re back together, he says, and after years of weathering drought-ridden, freeway-frenzied, dystopic Southern California, he’s digging the Denver vibe.

“It’s a very amenable place,” he says. “I came here for a visit early in 2014. It snowed. I stayed downtown at the Ritz-Carlton and corrupted all the young guys in the hotel by overtipping. For all my rah-rah-rah, I’m a very quiet-living, church-going guy. I appreciate the civil contract, and I am appalled when it’s not in effect. It’s not in effect in L.A., and it’s marvelously in effect here.”

Ellroy sold his house in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood in July. It wasn’t the first time he’s pulled up stakes and escaped from L.A.; over a 35-year writing career, he’s lived in Connecticut, New York, Carmel and Kansas City, with occasional extended pilgrimages back to Southern California. It’s not as if he needs to be billeted in his home town to tap into his source material: The Los Angeles he’s writing about is all in his head, a long-vanished, mid-century capital of industry and corruption, make-believe and mayhem, forged out of childhood memories and creative will. Still, Ellroy’s arrival in Denver comes at a fascinating point in his work, as the 67-year-old author pursues what could well be the most ambitious and perilous project of his entire career.

It’s no mean feat for a writer to keep outdoing himself when he’s AARP-eligible, but Ellroy has always swung for the fences. He first came to critics’ attention with an astonishing run of four big, sexy novels — The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz — published between 1987 and 1992. Known as the L.A. Quartet, the books were unique and unclassifiable. They weren’t mysteries or thrillers or police procedurals, exactly, but a series of interlocking, violent historical sagas whose central characters happened to be damaged cops and the women who held the keys to their redemption or destruction. Each book had enough plot lines for a dozen Elmore Leonard novels, the dark themes shaped in no small part by Ellroy’s own troubled past and personal obsessions, starting with the still-unsolved murder of his mother when he was ten years old. The writing crackled with cop talk, jazz patois, racial invective, alliteration — and became increasingly stylized from one volume to the next. The series announced the advent of an utterly original (and soon to be much-imitated) artist.

Emboldened by the critical and commercial success of the quartet, Ellroy plunged into a trio of novels dealing with the social and political upheaval of the 1960s, conjuring up a labyrinthine network of conspirators operating behind the scenes of the JFK, RFK and MLK assassinations. A mélange of historical figures, from Sonny Liston to Howard Hughes and Richard Nixon, have walk-on roles in the Underworld USA Trilogy, which Ellroy has described as a “secret history” of the era.

The trilogy took more than a decade to complete; the last volume, Blood’s a Rover, was published in 2009. But Ellroy’s latest multi-volume endeavor sounds even more formidable: a second L.A. Quartet, set during World War II, presenting a horde of characters featured in the first quartet and the trilogy, reimagined at a younger stage of their lives. It’s the biggest prequel project since George Lucas began tinkering, much to everyone’s regret, with the original Star Wars trilogy.

The first volume of the Second L.A. Quartet, Perfidia, was published last year. It’s Ellroy’s longest work so far, 691 pages long, not counting a final addendum listing all the characters referenced in the novel, which stretches to almost ninety names. The narrative covers just three weeks of havoc and intrigue in Los Angeles after the attack on Pearl Harbor, with a body count well into double digits, which gives you some idea of how busy things get in Ellroy’s wartime L.A.

“What I am is a historical novelist,” he says, tucking into the sorbet. “Now I’m going back and writing historical romances. Perfidia is a love song to America in 1941. When I am done with these four books, sometime in my early seventies, all three projects, taken together, will form a seamless narrative of America and Los Angeles from 1941 to 1972. It will be my life’s work.”

Even before the tragedy that upended his young life, Ellroy was a weird kid. He tells a story about that kid at nine years of age, “an indelible memory from 58 years ago,” that touches on what would become lifelong preoccupations: sex, crime, guilt, the flight from grim reality to seductive, consuming fantasy.

It’s Christmas 1957. Ellroy lives with his mother, Jean Hilliker, a redhead who “majored in booze and minored in men.” She’d given the heave-ho to his dad, a skirt-chasing scammer who briefly had been Rita Hayworth’s business manager, three years earlier. The boy is supposed to fly to Wisconsin to spend the holidays with his mother’s family, but first his father wants to take him to the movies.

It’s a double bill at a theater in Beverly Hills. One of the flicks is Plunder Road, a heist drama. The crooks rob a train loaded with gold bullion, then try to move the swag across the country concealed in various ways, but they get picked off one by one. The main heister heads for Mexico with his well-endowed blond girlfriend, but he gets into a fender bender on the Hollywood Freeway, exposing the gold under the chrome of his Cadillac bumper. He falls to his death fleeing a cop.

Young Ellroy is fascinated by the blonde, bummed by the movie. After it’s over, his father takes him to a house off Hollywood Boulevard. He parks the boy out front, with a bag of Fritos and a comic book, while he heads inside, presumably to visit a lady friend.

“There’s a half-full bottle of red wine on this stoop,” Ellroy recalls. “I guzzle it. I start wandering around, peeping in windows. Perverted shit. I wake up in a cab with my dad. I’m in an alcoholic blackout. I’m fucking nine. If you go to AA, you hear stories like this all the time. It’s preordained, it’s something in my blood, however you want to put it.”

In his unsparing 2010 memoir The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women, Ellroy recounts how his creepy behavior continued on the trip to Wisconsin with his mother. He drained her highball on the flight, tried to follow women into the airplane bathroom, and within a few days had immersed himself in a book on magic and started concocting curses. He was a mess.

After that trip, Jean Hilliker took her son and relocated to El Monte, California, which Ellroy would remember as “a downscale suburb populated by white shitkickers and pachucos with duck’s-ass haircuts.” A few months later, while Ellroy was spending a weekend with his father, she went out for a night on the town and didn’t come back. The redhead was last seen leaving a bar with a man. Her body was found the next morning near a high-school athletic field; she had been strangled. Ellroy had resented his mother’s decision to move them to El Monte and had longed to live with his father. He had cursed her and wished her gone. Deep in his bones, he believed he had caused her death.

Ellroy moved in with his father. He graduated from weird kid to tall, terminally strange, unmanageable adolescent. He got into fights with other kids, shoplifted steaks, affected an interest in Nazism, burrowed into a rich fantasy life. He was expelled from high school and washed out of the Army at seventeen, shortly after his father’s death. He drifted around Los Angeles, blasted on booze and Benzedrine inhalers, sleeping in parks or cheap hotels, occasionally waking up in jail. He prowled houses in his old neighborhood, peeping in windows and sometimes slipping through them to raid a fridge, hit the liquor cabinet and fantasize in dark rooms.

Ellroy says his prowler period has been overemphasized in what’s written about him; it’s become “author mythology largely perpetrated by the media.” (Arguably, the author got that ball rolling himself by writing essays for GQ about his teenage compulsions, with titles such as “Where I Get My Weird Shit” and “My Life as a Creep.”) He maintains that the break-ins were not a big part of his wayward youth and that they ended abruptly in the summer of 1969, when he was 21 and the minions of Charles Manson began making headlines.

“I did it cravenly, circumspectly and infrequently,” he says. “I would guess I did it about twenty times. I never stayed in for longer than half an hour. That’s ten hours. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the many, many days I spent ten hours reading in a public library.

“I knew that I was not fueling myself for the literary life. I was in sodden and very bad shape.”

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“I stopped because of [the] Tate-LaBianca [murders]. I started seeing the Bel Air alert signs, the private-patrol signs. I knew sooner or later I would get popped for this, and it wouldn’t be the county jail — it would be the penitentiary.”

In those long hours in the library, Ellroy read widely and eclectically. He gorged on “good, strong, masculine narrative” from the likes of Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace. He studied Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and other progenitors of the hard-boiled crime novel.
One of his own early novels is dedicated to Kenneth Millar, who wrote the Lew Archer detective series under the pen name Ross Macdonald, books that impress him less now than when he initially encountered them.

“His stuff doesn’t hold up very well,” he says. “And Raymond Chandler holds up poorer. But as a kid, I never got tired of it. Archer hates the most obvious and convenient targets, as Philip Marlowe did — the wealthy, the mean-spirited, big business, gangsters, brutal cops. I like to say that Chandler wrote the man he wanted to be, while Hammett, with Ned Beaumont and the Continental Op and Sam Spade, wrote the man that he was afraid he was.... But as a pure craftsman storyteller, I think James M. Cain was better than both of them. I don’t think either of them ever wrote anything as dynamic as The Postman Always Rings Twice, Serenade or Double Indemnity.”

Ellroy longed to be a writer himself. But his demons and the drinking and the speed kept him sidelined. In his late twenties, after years of scuffling around and too many brushes with emergency rooms and the DTs, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. “I was able to get sober the first time because I had no illusions about my relationship with alcohol and drugs,” he says. “I knew that I was not fueling myself for the literary life. I was in sodden and very bad shape. But I was always reading for escape, for edification, to be jazzed, to be eroticized. I was always trying to get to the essence of my own horny, love-starved male drama.”

He found steady work as a caddy and time to write. In 1981 he published his first novel, Brown’s Requiem, about an ex-cop turned private investigator. His second, Clandestine, was an early attempt to reconstruct 1950s L.A. as the setting for a convoluted murder mystery that echoed his mother’s death. But in this version, the murder got solved, the killer revealed as a bizarre variant of Ellroy’s father.

He wrote four more contemporary, fairly conventional crime novels. Then he circled back to Southern California’s most infamous and gruesome unsolved homicide: the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia. Ellroy had been obsessed with the case for years; Short was his surrogate for another woman found abused and abandoned in a field. He dedicated The Black Dahlia to Geneva Hilliker Ellroy: “Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood.”

The Black Dahlia was Ellroy’s breakaway novel, the cornerstone of what would become the L.A. Quartet. The book brought him international acclaim and bumped him from skimpy advances to the front of the buffet line. In interviews, he talked about his mother’s murder. But dedicating the book to her wasn’t quite the same as confronting all the emotional turmoil from the event that still roiled within him.

While working on the L.A. Quartet, Ellroy married and then divorced his first wife. He met Helen Knode, then a writer for L.A. Weekly. They married in 1991. Two years later, Knode gave him a framed photo of himself at the age of ten, taken by a newspaper reporter right after the police informed him that his mother was dead. The boy in the photo is expressionless and shut down. The image prompted Ellroy to pursue his first major nonfiction project — a quest to learn more about his mother and her death.

Published in 1996, My Dark Places may be Ellroy’s most powerful work. It details his attempts, with the aid of cold-case homicide detectives, to find his mother’s killer, or at least reconstruct her movements on the last night of her life. The book is also a searing examination of the ways he’d betrayed her memory and bought into his father’s self-serving view of her; a recounting of his own self-destructive journey; and a rueful meditation on aspects of Hilliker’s life and her love of him that he had never taken into account.

“I thought I could touch the literal horror and somehow commute my life sentence,” he wrote about the experience. “I was mistaken. The woman refused to grant me a reprieve. Her grounds were simple: My death gave you a voice, and I need you to recognize me past your exploitation of it.”

Last week, Ellroy presented his second film at the Alamo, Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 crime drama High and Low. Decked out in a raincoat over a Hawaiian shirt and dazzling white sneakers, looking like someone about to slip a stocking over his head and jack a 7-Eleven, he greeted the crowd with one of his signature routines:

“Good evening, peepers, prowlers, pederasts, pedants, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I’m James Ellroy, the death dog with the hog log, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I am the author of eighteen books, masterpieces all. They precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and dry-cleaned; tied, dyed and swept to the side; screwed, blued, tattooed and bafungooled.”

The riff generated a lukewarm response, possibly because his most ardent fans have heard it all before, from previous appearances or YouTube clips. Subsequent quips about his “beef with the Japanese,” dating back to Pearl Harbor, brought only a few chuckles. Frustrated by the low energy level, Ellroy turned to his co-host, film critic and Alamo general manager Walter Chaw.

“Walter, I think these people are politically correct,” he snapped. “I’m starting to think we’ve got a bunch of fucking stiffs on our hands tonight — unlike the high-voltage, irreverent motherfuckers who showed up for L.A. Confidential. What are we going to do about this?”

What they did was start talking about the movie. Ellroy’s enthusiasm for what he calls “the most complex, ritually detailed police investigation ever captured on film” was palpable, spreading a galvanic charge through the theater. After the film, he hung around in the lobby, shmoozing and signing books and marveling at the nightclub scene near the end of High and Low, a descent into a postwar inferno of twist music and smack deals and smug foreigners.

Since his arrival in Denver, Ellroy has learned how to navigate lower downtown and find his way to Elway’s. He’s adopted the Alamo as his chief public forum — partly out of his love of movies, but also because he hit it off with Chaw, one of the first people Knode brought to his attention. Chaw says Ellroy brings a “rebellious, outspoken, pioneering spirit,” as well as his special insights, to the film series: “He’s a brilliant artist, his taste is specific and unassailable, and we value the perspective that he brings as a curator.”

Ellroy notes that the gig gives him an opportunity to interact with an audience between book tours. “In my distanced way, I like people very much,” he says.

Distanced, indeed. In an age that puts a premium on connectedness, Ellroy is unusually disconnected. He disdains social media. His website is perfunctory. He claims not to have a cell phone or a computer; he still writes in longhand, relying on an assistant to transcribe his manuscripts. He leans conservative and loathes atheists. Although he’s been generous in blurbing for promising crime novelists, he expresses a profound disinterest in many of the much-praised literary giants of the day. (He explained to one interviewer, “I tried to read a Cormac McCarthy book and thought, ‘Why doesn’t this cocksucker use quotation marks?’”) And while many writers bemoan the state of the publishing industry and of domestic politics, Ellroy talks about being grateful to be alive and loving America, “this wild-ass place that’s always airing its dirty laundry for the world to see, and always letting the raggedy-ass refugees in.”

“He’s a brilliant artist, his taste is specific and unassailable, and we value the perspective that he brings as a curator.”

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Movies are one of the ways he can connect to his fans on a more personal level. The films he selected for the Alamo series are hardly casual choices; the next one to be shown, Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo, is yet another story, like The Black Dahlia, about a man’s obsessive love for a dead woman. It also happens to be the last movie Ellroy saw as a child before his mother’s murder.

As important as certain movies have been to him, certain books have mattered even more. He has suggested that the entire genesis of the L.A. Quartet can be traced back to The Badge, a compilation of true-crime stories assembled by Dragnet creator Jack Webb, that fell into his young hands in 1959. Decades later, coming across Don DeLillo’s 1988 novel Libra, a brilliant reconception of Lee Harvey Oswald’s role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, fired Ellroy’s ambition to tackle something along the same lines but distinctly his own, a large-canvas triptych devoted to the convulsions of 1960s espionage, political paranoia and assassinations. The Underworld USA Trilogy demonstrated that Ellroy had moved well beyond genre labels; the first volume, American Tabloid, drew rave reviews from such mainstream organs as Time, which hailed it as the best novel of 1995.

The reception for the second installment, The Cold Six Thousand, wasn’t quite as positive. Over several books, Ellroy’s prose had become increasingly staccato, relentlessly cadenced and alliterative — an emphatic blend of street slang, tabloidese and the kind of soulless deadpan tone found in FBI memos. But The Cold Six Thousand took the rat-a-tat writing almost to a level of parody, with sentences that rarely exceeded half a dozen words, reminiscent of a child’s primer:

“Wayne looked at Durfee. Durfee looked at Wayne. Wayne looked at Pete. Pete gave him the gun. Wayne dropped the safety.”

“Wayne watched the window. Time sluiced. Time slithered. Time slid.”

“The lock clicked. The door slammed. There’s the pause. There’s the gasp.”

Some reviewers found the style tedious and annoying, particularly for such a long, densely plotted story. Ellroy says the writing reflects the state of exhaustion and emotional collapse he was experiencing after years of wrestling with mammoth outlines and thousand-page manuscripts.

“Consciously, it’s about America’s nervous breakdown during the 1960s,” he says. “Unconsciously, it’s about my own nervous breakdown. I worked way too hard for too many years. Then I went on a foolishly considered five-month book tour. I was also afraid of my own overarching emotional life — so it’s my coldest and most clinical book. I reversed field when I saw that book was, to all but a few of the cognoscenti, incomprehensible. I got my ass kicked out in the world at large.”

In The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy describes a “crack-up” that began with chronic insomnia, leading to dependence on sleeping pills and uppers, then the unraveling of his marriage to Knode amid his increasingly erratic behavior. In 2006 he moved back to Los Angeles. His “reversed field” consisted of getting healthy again and completing the third installment of the trilogy, Blood’s a Rover, written in “a more fulsome American idiom.” Ellroy considers it the strongest and most emotionally effective volume of the trilogy.

“I believe my work has gotten steadily better,” he says. “You can make the case for stylistic excess in The Cold Six Thousand, and you’d be right. But thematically, I go off in new territory in Blood’s a Rover and take it up a notch. I’m talking about a spiritual view of life. I’m talking about Dostoyevsky’s great quote: ‘Where there is no God, everything is permissible.’”

He recites the quote slowly, as if giving a dramatic reading. “That,” he says, “is going to be the epitaph for the entire Second L.A. Quartet.”

Another indelible memory from nearly sixty years ago. Sometime in 1956: Ellroy is shining his shoes in the bathroom. Dressed in her nurse uniform, his mother comes into the room. He says something that alerts Jean Hilliker to the fact that her eight-year-old son is laboring under a peculiar misconception: He thinks America is still at war with Germany and Japan. She informs him that World War II ended three years before he was born.

“I didn’t believe her,” Ellroy says. “I’m not sure I do today.”

Fast-forward to 2008. Ellroy is living in an apartment in Los Angeles. “I was looking out the window and I had a flash,” he recalls. “Japanese-Americans in the back of an Army transport vehicle. Snowy mountain pass. Bunch of soldiers with tommy guns up front, going up to Manzanar, the internment camp.”

Within minutes, he says, he was mapping out in his head a series of novels spanning the war years in Los Angeles. The saga would begin with the ritual suicide of a Japanese family — or is it murder? — on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Half a dozen years later, Perfidia, the first volume of the project, hits bookstores, with an old-home-week cast of characters. Here’s Hideo Ashida, a police chemist barely mentioned in earlier work, now center stage and walking on the edge of an abyss as he investigates a quadruple suicide amid virulent anti-Japanese hysteria. Here’s Dudley Smith, the murderously corrupt cop whose schemes course through much of the first L.A. Quartet, in an earlier, more vulnerable incarnation, copping bennies and smoking opium and madly in love with Bette Davis. Here’s Kay Lake, a key figure in The Black Dahlia, now entangled in undercover work and a budding romance with “Whiskey” Bill Parker, based on the real-life police captain who would one day be chief of the LAPD.

The burgeoning subplots involve Fifth Column conspirators and commie cells, real-estate speculation and tong wars, eugenics and plastic surgery, and even a guest appearance by the Dahlia herself, Betty Short. If you suggest to the author that the book is a bit, well, sprawling, he’ll counter that it’s actually quite compressed, covering a tremendous amount of ground with remarkable economy. Still, it’s doubtful that even the Ellroy cognoscenti can keep track of all the characters making mischief in the novel and their relationships to his previous work, in spite of the handy cast list provided at the back.

“I will not die as long as I live this story. I run to Then to buy myself moments Now.”

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But then, there are other reasons for reading Perfidia, beyond its feats of narrative derring-do. What is truly surprising about the book is the depth of emotion and range of perspective compared to Ellroy’s earlier work. The novel manages to capture the wave of racial hatred and jingoism in the wake of Pearl Harbor while remaining oddly patriotic. Lake emerges as a principal narrator, the moral compass of the story — and the most sustained female voice in Ellroy’s fiction.

“What was liberating for me was the expansion of Kay Lake,” he says. “I think she’s my greatest single character. I can’t tell you what I feel for her. She very much derives from Helen Knode.”

Ellroy is now at work on the second volume, which will feature “about fifty characters” from Perfidia as they head deeper into the war years. More to the point, the book will further develop Whiskey Bill’s duel with Dudley for the soul of the police department. Even more to the point, the book will be “largely the continuing love story of Parker and Kay Lake,” he says.

Ellroy has often been quoted as saying that his books are about “bad men in love with strong women.” But they are also about memory working in conjunction with imagination, conjuring the past — including, in the case of Perfidia, a war that predates his birth but that he felt immersed in as a child. Make what you will of the no-cell-phone, no-computer business, but his work is wired into a particular time and place, and for that journey he requires no such gear. It’s a portable feast, as available in his new Denver digs as anywhere else.

The first word in Perfidia is reminiscenza — reminiscence. It’s uttered by Kay Lake, looking back at the events of the novel years later. She declares, “I will not die as long as I live this story. I run to Then to buy myself moments Now.” That may be the closest thing to a mission statement to be found in the work of James Ellroy.

“It’s all memory for me,” he says. “Memory and extrapolation. If I don’t recall it, I’m eminently capable of envisioning it.”
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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast

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