Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mystery at Penmarth:
a Ruth Manning-Sanders rarity


One of the most difficult acquisitions for my Ruth Manning-Sanders collection was a novel titled Mystery at Penmarth. I finally tracked down a reasonably priced copy of the American edition a few years ago. It's a former library copy (from the Granby Public Library in Granby, Connecticut) and the dust jacket was removed long ago, leaving just the green boards. A white "J" has been written on the spine, presumably meaning that it was shelved in the Juvenile section.

Because this copy has no dust jacket and because the internet is not yet a repository of All Knowledge and All Images, I had never known what the cover of this book looked like. Until now. Someone added the above image to the book's listing on Amazon.com, and it's an absolute beauty.

The dust jacket illustration and a small handful of interior illustrations — and I'm talking now about the 1941 American first edition from Robert M. McBride of New York1 — are the work of Susanne Suba. Here is a short biography of Suba, from Something About the Author (Vol. 4), via the University of Southern Mississippi, which holds her manuscript collection:
"Susanne Suba was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1913 to mother, May, and father, Miklos, who was a painter and architect. Her family emigrated to the United States and settled in Brooklyn when she was a young girl. After studying art at Pratt Institute in New York, Ms. Suba moved to Chicago to work as a book illustrator. She collaborated with various authors, including her husband Russell McCracken, and was a regular contributor to Publisher's Weekly and other publications throughout the years. As a freelance painter and illustrator, Ms. Suba had exhibitions at The Boston Museum, the Art Director's Club in both Chicago and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, The Brooklyn Museum and many other smaller venues."
Suba died in 2012, according to this Ink Spill blog post.

As for Mystery at Penmarth, here are a couple of reviews. First up is the August 1941 review from Kirkus:
"A good mystery, credible enough and not too complicated, a good story, and nice writing -- so here is an answer to the incessant demand from ten up, for mysteries and yet more mysteries. This fits the upper bracket of this age group, and on up to fifteen. Four cousins go to spend the summer in an old Cornish village; they meet Sam Penmarth, a boy of their own age, living in a sinister, gloomy old mansion with an uncle who is an archeologist. They form a club -- they find a hidden room and a confession of an ancient crime. Lively ingenious youngsters, whom everyone will like, and a background of the days of smuggling as the setting for the crime."

And this unbylined review is from the October 19, 1941, edition of The New York Times:
"The Old Curse
The four cousins who discovered that 'Adventure May Be Anywhere' in an earlier book by Mrs. Manning-Sanders literally unearth it again on an estate in Cornwall. Their new-found friend, Sam Penmarth, is heir to gloomy, old Penmarth House and he wants to know why no heir, for centuries, has ever left a son, but chiefly he wants to know what is locked up in the upper room of the north wing and what the servants are talking about as they mutter of an old curse and pirates and wreckers.

"Thus is born one of those secret societies, so dear to the hearts of 10 and 12 year olds, devoted to unraveling the mystery. Their investigations coincide happily with Sam's scholarly uncle's excavation of a prehistoric burial mound on the estate, and this adds an unexpected twist to their own private mystery. Even though disaster accompanies their probing into an ancient drama of greed and murder, and though they never quite convince the grownups of the validity of their findings, the children have a wonderful time whipping up their sympathies for a long-dead little Penmarth.

"They mystery is revealed too soon, so that there is a faint air of anticlimax about the latter half of the story, and one never gets to know Sally and Bang and Jimmy as well as in the earlier book, but the creepy atmosphere is well sustained, as is the sense of desperate earnestness with which the children go about their play, and any tale for entertainment as well written as this one deserves reading."
I mentioned, very briefly, some of the fairy and folk tale imagery in Mystery at Penmarth in a post last August. I should also note that the young adventurers of this novel call their group S.U.M.P. — Society for the Unraveling of the Mystery at Penmarth. I think the S.U.M.P. kids would be quite at home alongside the kids of Stand By Me, and The Goonies and Stranger Things.

Footnote
1. Mystery at Penmarth was first published in 1940, by Collins of London. The illustrator of that UK edition was Anne Bullen. Here is that cover:

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