My post a few months back on the pulp-fiction writer Nat Karta elicited a welcome amount of interest – at least amongst the cognoscenti who recognise and embrace the Robert Escarpit distinction between “connoisseur reading” and “consumer reading”. Both bibliographically and culturally the favourite British “consumer reading” of the mid twentieth century has all but been consigned to a historical black hole. The truth is that writers like “Nat Karta”, “Hank Janson” and “Darcy Glinto” heavily outsold all the Evelyn Waughs, Graham Greenes and Anthony Powells of the literary establishment – and that alone surely makes them worthy of a little more attention. Their books too are now both rare and very poorly and patchily represented in the national collections, which makes them worthy of bookselling attention too.
The publisher Edwin Henry Turvey (1902-1981) was one of the key figures, but I suspect you will search in vain for any reliable biographical information about him. He was in fact born in Kilburn in North London – the son of a barman. He married Annie Smith (also known as Annie Kenna) at Islington in 1929, the couple living initially at an address in Clerkenwell. He first came to public notice in brief mentions in the newspapers in late 1938 – the Portsmouth Evening News of Wednesday 14th December carried the following terse report: “Pleading guilty at the Central Criminal Court yesterday to a charge of selling obscene literature, Edwin Henry Turvey (36), a salesman, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment”. To judge from his later output what the court judged obscene (probably an imported American magazine) was probably no more than, at best (or at worst), mildly salacious, but his life was perhaps already becoming problematic in other ways. The electoral register for that year finds him, properly enough at a prisonish address in Parkhurst Court, Holloway, with Annie – but it also finds him (lightly disguised as Edwin John Turvey) living with a woman calling herself Irene Lilian Turvey at 160 Lordship Road in Shoreditch.
It’s certainly the same man, because it was with Irene Lilian Turvey that he set up the publishing house of Modern Fiction Ltd. in 1943, originally operating from Holloway in North London, but soon from a warehouse in Morwell Street off the Tottenham Court Road. Irene Lilian Taylor (1915-1992), to give her true name, was the daughter of a Lincolnshire farm-worker and a mainstay of the business, which rapidly developed a stable of authorial pseudonyms which became both highly popular and instantly recognisable – “Henri Duprès” for saucy romances, “Ben Sarto” for Chicago or New York set American-style thrillers – these both in fact the work (at least initially) of the moonlighting journalist Frank Dubrez Fawcett (1891-1968) – and probably the best known name of all, “Griff”, with a whole series of hard-boiled gangster novels begun by the bibulous Ernest Lionel McKeag (1896-1974) and later taken over by other writers. Many of the earlier titles had cover designs by the mysterious H. W. Perl – a variable but at best a highly gifted artist, with a sensitivity and subtlety rare in pulp publishing. Quite who he (or perhaps she) was no-one seems to know, but my guess would be either Herman Perl or Hyman Perl (Pearl), both refugees from continental Europe and both of whom died in north London in 1957.
In 1945 Edwin and Irene were both registered at a residential address at 28 Hersham Road, Walton on Thames, and Irene formally changed her name from Taylor to Turvey by an announcement in the local press in 1946 – this later confirmed by a formal deed announced in the London Gazette on 12th September 1947. The couple were eventually to marry at St. Pancras late in 1964.
The “Griff” and “Ben Sarto” lines developed by Modern Fiction became, for a time, among the best-selling of all the pulps and the Turveys were able to diversify. They acquired their own printers, taking over Craig Mitchell & Co., and renaming the company with Edwin Turvey’s initials, E.H.T. Printers Ltd. The business was reshaped to some extent in 1949, with another London Gazette announcement saying that the Turvey partnership in a subsidiary business as printers, publishers, librarians, newsagents and stationers at 192 Pershore Street in Birmingham, trading as the Fulton Publishing Co., was to be dissolved and would be continued by Irene alone. The same change was decreed at the same time for their Pillar Box Library at 25 Half Moon Lane, Herne Hill – a little local business which appears to have been run by Edwin Turvey’s mother, Annetta Elizabeth Turvey, until her death in 1955.
Meanwhile the Modern Fiction output was going from strength to strength, increasing their output from two to four new titles a month and introducing new brand-named authors like “Hank Spencer” and “Spike Gordon”, the latter apparently a pseudonym of another serial churner out of pulp novels, John Russell Fearn (1908-1960), perhaps best known for his science fiction.
But the days of the post-war pulp phenomenon were numbered. A spate of book-bannings, some high-profile obscenity trials and prison sentences for publishers, the spread of television viewing down the social scale, and the rise of more mainstream paperback publishing all played their part. From a peak in 1953-1954, Modern Fiction Ltd. fell into a rapid and terminal decline. An announcement, again in the London Gazette, on 29th July 1955, warned that under the 1948 Companies Act , “unless cause is shown to the contrary”, Modern Fiction Ltd. would be struck off the Register and the company dissolved. Six months later, on 27th January 1956, the company was duly struck off – although there seems to be some evidence that it limped on for a few more years in some kind of twilight existence.
Quite what became of the Turveys thereafter I have been unable to discover, although it’s difficult not to imagine that this resourceful and inventive pair would not have flourished in some sphere or other. The printing arm of the business, E. H. T. Printers Ltd., certainly survived until after Edwin Turvey’s death in Surrey in 1981, it being voluntarily wound up by Irene Turvey (still at 28 Hersham Road, Walton-on-Thames) in the spring of 1982.
For some more Modern Fiction titles and notes on the individual books – please see http://www.ashrare.com/modern_fiction_ltd.html.