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Sunday, May 10, 2009

J. V. Turner (aka David Hume)

John Victor Turner is a name not widely remembered now but, in his day, he was compared to Edgar Wallace and was turning out new books at a tremendous rate, a new title appearing every 3 or 4 months. Turner, using the pen-name David Hume, was of the hard-boiled school of crime writing, his best-known creation being private eye Mick Cardby, the son of a Scotland Yard Chief Inspector (who later joins his son in the private detection game), who featured in a series of fast-moving thrillers. Cardby often pitted himself against master criminals (often given a Master Criminal name, like The Boss or, in one case, Jonathan Wild) in London's seamier districts.

I'm not 100% certain, but Hume's Mick Cardby novels might be the first to feature a hardboiled British private detective. Not the first British hardboiled stories: Hugh Clevely, John G. Brandon, John Hunter and Edgar Wallace had already featured gangs and gangsters in London; nor the first British private detective of which there had been countless examples; he wasn't the first fist-swinging crime solver, either, but Mick may have been the first bonafide British private eye fighting gangs and gunmen in the UK.

The David Hume novels were fast and furious, Maurice Richardson, in his "Crime Ration" column in The Guardian, claiming that Hume's main virtue was for rapid but concise violent action. For the most part, the Hume novels were not driven by complex plots and the action tended to be a bit repetitive. 'Torquemada' of The Observer, considered Hume's talent was for "tales where the strength is more of body and endurance than of brian". Cardby certainly solved more problems with his fists than his brains but that made them no-less popular and two Cardby novels were adapted as movies: Crime Unlimited (1935, remade in 1939 as Too Dangerous to Live) and They Called Him Death (as The Patient Vanishes, 1941).

Hume's second string hero was Tony Carter, a wise-cracking crime reporter who had an ongoing battle with gang bosses in Soho, but Hume—or, rather, John Victor Turnerwas also capable of writing reasonably solid, if a little gruesome, mysteries, which he did under his own name (J. V. Turner) and the nom-de-plume Nicholas Brady. Under the latter name he created the eccentric mystery solver Reverend Ebenezer Buckle. Turner, as Hume, participated in the round-robin novel Double Death (1939), written with Dorothy L. Sayers, Freeman Wills Crofts and other members of the Detection Club, and at Turner's suggestion, the book also included notes on the ideas and doubts of each of the contributors, offering a glimpse behind the scenes.

But Turner seemed to be at his best, and most popular, when he was dealing with the gangs in Soho and Limehouse. This was an area of London he knew intimately. Turner had spent nine years as a newspaper reporter before becoming a full-time crime novelist and the dust jackets of his novels made great play of the fact that, in order to keep in touch with the criminal world, Turner would leave his home two or three times a year and live amongst criminals for weeks at a time. It was by this method that he was able to bring an authenticity to his novels, albeit an exaggerated authenticity, and Howard Spring could claim that Turner "shares Edgar Wallace's practical knowledge of the techniques of crime."

The critic 'Torquemada' noted Hume's use of slang:
Mr. Hume contributes to his latest supercharged thriller an introduction of underworld slang. He rightly pleads, as Edgar Wallace by example pleaded, for verisimilitude in the criminal speech of his contemporaries. On the jacket the reader is asked to translate: "I was banged to rights. A snow split, and a couple of bogies lumbered me in the drum. Pete came grass, and I went up the steps to take a stretch." The substitution of "snow split" for "snout split" is probably a little printer's jest to make the whole thing more difficult. Mr. Hume makes no attempt to distinguish the old from the new; he defintes "glim," which has been current since the seventeenth century, merely as "an electric torch with only a small aperture revealing the bulb." But to return to the quoted and corrected sentence, the reader will notice that out of nine definitely argotic expressions, only one, "come grass," is American, that five are modern, and that three are classical, "split," "drim," and "stretch," which range from seventy to a hundred and fifty years old. Mr. Hume, whose energy seems equal to that of his own Mick, should be able to write a most interesting history of outlaw language. If he does so, he may be able to throw some light on the changes of fashion which shift the same word to different meanings with the change of generations. his own present-day definitions will exemplify this: "A police informant is a 'snout,' 'nose,' or 'nark'; while the uniformed police are 'flats,', 'flatties,' or 'rozzers.' The detectives are 'splits,' or 'bogies.'" But I believe that fifty years ago a "rozzer" was synonymous with a nark, and so too was a "split." Can there be any sociological significance in this confusion? (Torquemada, "The Tongue of Crime", The Observer, 26 May 1935)
Argot aside, Turner's novels delivered to his readers a London filled with guns and gangsters, a genre that was growing increasingly popular. The weekly story paper The Thriller was full of this kind of story and it is no surprise that David Hume was one of the invited writers, penning a series of stories featuring police Detective Inspector Sanderson (subsequently collected in Call In The Yard and The Crime Combine). Many of Turner's early novels published in the period 1932-36 were also published in America. He also co-wrote the screenplay for the 1941 adaptation of Peter Cheyney's Lemmy Caution novel, This Man Is Dangerous.

Sadly, Turner's reign as one of the most popular crime writers in the UK came to a sudden end. On Saturday, 6 February 1945, he died at Haywards Heath, W. Sussex, aged only 39.

His age at death is important as it highlights a widespread error in what we know about Turner. Every source that mentions him gives his details as John Victor Turner, 1900-1945. Yet his death record shows that he was born in 1905/06 and this can be further proven elsewhere. In the 1911 census he is only 5 years old and a very likely candidate can be found in the birth records for 3Q 1905. His age also alters other presumptions, for example that he was the second of three boys; he was, in fact, the third son and youngest of six children.

Turner's father was Alfred Turner, a Staffordshire-born saddle and harness maker, who married Agnes Mary D. Hume in 1890. The marriage was registered in Chorlton, Manchester, and the young couple lived in Withington, now a suburb in the south of Manchester, a mile east of Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

The Turners had six children: Lilian Mary A. Turner (b. 1890), Agnes Annie Turner (b. 1893), Flora Turner (b. 1896), Alfred Hume Turner (b. 1897), Joseph Turner (b. 1902) and John Turner (b. 1905).

It is worth noting that John had no second name according to birth records and a middle initial (his first novels appearing as by J. V. Turner) may have been added to distinguish him from popular playwright and novelist John Hastings Turner.

Turner grew up in Withington and was too young to serve during the war, although his elder brother, Alfred, signed up at the age of 16; Alfred suffered from shell shock for the rest of his life, leaving him unable to hold down a job. Joseph would eventually travel down to London where he became a police officer, eventually rising to a senior rank in Scotland Yard.

John (known to his family as Jack), attended Warwick School and found work on a local paper before moving to Fleet Street where he worked for the Press Association, Daily Mail, Financial Times and as a crime reporter on the Daily Herald.

Judith Gavin, related through her grandfather, Turner's brother Alfred, noted in correspondence with Steve Lewis (published on his Mystery*File blog recently) that Turner was married twice; his first wife (with whom he had a daughter) drowned and he subsequently remarried (and had a son).

The cause of Turner's death remains something of a mystery. To quote Judith Gavin, "The cause of death has always been rather glossed over as something of a mystery in the family, not because it was thought to be sinister or suspicious, or heroic, but because it may have been linked to TB which was “hushed up” by the family partly because it was notifiable and contagious, but also as it was associated with poor living conditions etc."

Turner's legacy is a set of some 45 novels and two collections written over a period of 14 years best summed up by a New York Times reviewer who said of one book: "Swift action and plenty of it make this story a good example of the mystery-adventure type of thriller. If you prefer subtle deduction, you must look elsewhere."

UPDATE: 19 May 2009
Steve Lewis posted a note on his Mystery*File blog about the above bit of research (itself based in part on research that Steve L. had done in the past) and received an interesting comment from David Vineyard which backs up my claim that Mick Cardby may well be the first British version of the American private eye. Until evidence to the contrary comes along, it would seem that J. V. Turner was something of a trendsetter in his all-too-brief career.

Novels (series: Amos Petrie in all)
Death Must Have Laughed. London, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1932; as First Round Murder, New York, Holt, 1932.
Who Spoke Last?. London, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1932; New York, Holt, 1933.
Amos Petrie’s Puzzle. London, Geoffrey Bles, 1933.
Murder—Nine and Out. London, Geoffrey Bles, 1934.
Death Joins The Party. London, Geoffrey Bles, 1935.
Homicide Haven. London, Collins, 1935.
Below The Clock. London, Collins, 1936; New York, D. Appleton-Century Co., 1936.

Novels as Nicholas Brady (series: Rev. Ebenezer Buckle)
The House of Strange Guests (Buckle). London, Geoffrey Bles, 1932.
The Fair Murder (Buckle). London, Geoffrey Bles, 1933; as The Carnival Murder, New York, Holt, 1933.
Week-End Murder. London, Geoffrey Bles, 1933.
Ebenezer Investigates (Buckle). London, Geoffrey Bles, 1934.
Coupons for Death. London, Hale, 1944.

Novels as David Hume (series: Mick Cardby; Tony Carter)
Bullets Bite Deep (Cardby). London, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1932.
Murders Form Fours (Cardby). London, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1932; as The Foursquare Murders, New York, McBride, 1933.
Crime Unlimited (Cardby). London, Collins, 1933; New York, McBride, 1933.
Below The Belt (Cardby). London, Collins, 1934.
They Called Him Death (Cardby). London, Collins, 1934; New York, D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935.
Too Dangerous To Live (Cardby). London, Collins, 1934.
Dangerous Mr. Dell (Cardby). London, Collins, 1935; New York, D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935.
The Gaol Gates Are Open (Cardby). London, Collins, 1935; as The Jail Gates Are Open, New York, D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935.
Bring 'Em Back Dead (Cardby). London, Collins, 1936; New York, D. Appleton-Century Co., 1936.
Meet The Dragon (Cardby). London, Collins, 1936.
Cemetery First Stop! (Cardby). London, Collins, 1937.
Halfway To Horror (Cardby). London, Collins, 1937.
Corpses Never Argue (Cardby). London, Collins, 1938.
Good-Bye To Life (Cardby). London, Collins, 1938.
Death Before Honour (Cardby). London, Collins, 1939.
Heads You Live (Cardby). London, Collins, 1939.
Make Way For The Mourners (Cardby). London, Collins, 1939.
Eternity, Here I Come! (Cardby). London, Collins, 1940.
Five Aces. London, Collins, 1940.
Invitation To The Grave. London, Collins, 1940.
You’ll Catch Your Death (Carter). London, Collins, 1940.
Stand Up And Fight. London, Collins, 1941.
The Return Of Mick Cardby (Cardby). London, Collins, 1941.
Destiny Is My Name (Cardby). London, Collins, 1942.
Never Say Live! (Carter). London, Collins, 1942.
Requiem For Rogues (Carter). London, Collins, 1942.
Dishonour Among Thieves (Cardby). London, Collins, 1943.
Get Out the Cuffs (Cardby). London, Collins, 1943.
Mick Cardby Works Overtime (Cardby). London, Collins, 1944.
Toast To The Corpse (Cardby). London, Collins, 1944.
Come Back for the Body (Cardby). London, Collins, 1945.
They Never Come Back (Cardby). London, Collins, 1945.
Heading For A Wreath (Cardby). London, Collins, 1946.

Collections as David Hume (series: Det. Insp. Sanderson in all)
Call In The Yard. London, Collins, 1935.
The Crime Combine. London, Collins, 1936.

Others
Double Death, with Dorothy L. Sayer, et al. London, Victor Gollancz, 1939.

Screenplays
This Man Is Dangerous, with John Argyle & Edward Dryhurst, 1941; also released as The Patient Vanishes.

(* A huge thanks to Lyndsey Greenslade for the cover images except the column header scanned by Bill Pronzini via Steve Lewis.)

1 comment:

Chris O'Grady said...

I never read any of Hume's work, but he sounds like my kinda guy, although I must admit I'm not as long on non-stop action in my novels as I probably should be. The most recent one THE FOREVER GIRL comes close, but somehow i still think Mr. Hume would leave me in the dust, in that department.