“Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality; there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.”
— Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”
Do you collect old books?
Last fall, I visited Lost Books in Glendale, CA, which sells used books, vinyl, and plants. While browsing their extensive collection of old books, I found a few 1930s–1940s mysteries.
One such book was The Third Omnibus of Crime, a collection of mystery short stories edited by Dorothy L. Sayers and published in 1935.
Of course I bought it. But then I thought, shoot—what about the first two?
It was a passing idea at first. Honestly, I didn’t think about the other Omnibuses of Crime for months.
Then I was invited to chat on the Clued In Mystery podcast on the subject of The Detection Club. While prepping for the discussion, I learned that Sayers’s Omnibuses (particularly the first one) are kind of a big deal in the world of classic detective stories.
Recently, I set out to complete the set. A beautiful first edition of the original Omnibus of Crime (1929) was easy to find; the second, not so much. I did find a Goodreads page for it, which had the following helpful criticism from Gilbert:
[Image description: Screenshot of Goodreads user Gilbert's 1-star review of The Second Omnibus of Crime by Dorothy L. Sayers: “Terrible by comparison to the First and Third Omnibuses of Crime.”]
Critics be damned, I still wanted that book. Thankfully, my Insta-friend Kate (@thekittencanread) sent me a link for what apparently was the only Second Omnibus for sale online. Thanks, Kate 😊
So now I have all three! And in the coming weeks, I’ll hopefully break them open, starting with Sayers’s introductions before moving on to the actual stories. (When I get to the Second Omnibus, I’ll let you all know if Gilbert was right.)
Now, sleuths, today’s interview is a good one. It’s with Barbara Graham, whose debut novel, What Jonah Knew, just hit shelves this month.
I read this literary thriller in April, and I have to say, it’s still haunting me today.
What Jonah Knew is a story of loss, grief, motherhood, and spirituality. At the core of the story is the mysterious disappearance of twenty-two-year-old Henry Bird, whose memories apparently are remembered by young Jonah Pressman. Is this coincidence, reincarnation, or something more?
In the interview below, I chat with Barbara about the book’s themes and more.
As always, I hope you all enjoy the issue. Cheers! x
One of my favorite aspects of Agatha Christie’s writing is her ability to craft the most interesting, nuanced, and lifelike characters. Some are likable, even lovable, while some are not. Author Dianne Freeman explores five of the latter variety in this new article from CrimeReads.
EVENT: Join this Barnes & Noble Midday Mystery event to hear Ruth Ware discuss The It Girl, her new mystery out this month. Tune in Wednesday, July 13th (tomorrow!) at 3pm Eastern. Learn more and register here.
EVENT: Fans of Daniel Silva will enjoy this discussion with the author about his newest thriller, Portrait of an Unknown Women, hosted by Books & Books, Miami Book Fair, and Warwick’s. This is a ticketed event: purchase a copy of the book and get access. Learn more and register here.
The best writers are also readers—hone your craft by reading with purpose. This article, “Improve Your Own Storytelling by Analyzing Other People’s” by author/editor Tiffany Yates Martin will help you get started. Read now via Jane Friedman.
EVENT: Authors, is your Amazon book page holding you back from potential sales? Optimize your page to grab new readers with “Secrets of a Bestselling Amazon Book Page,” an upcoming PubU webinar from IBPA. Join this paid webinar Wednesday, July 13th (tomorrow!) at 1pm Eastern. Learn more and register here.
EVENT: Learn how to write inclusively without interrupting your creative flow in “Learning Through Lived Experience/How We Think About Inclusion,” an upcoming panel discussion from Sisters in Crime. Join Thursday, July 21st at 8pm Eastern. Learn more and register here.
Love witches and Scotland?The Weight of Sand is the fiction podcast for you.
This haunting series follows the life and legend of Isobel Gowdie, a woman accused of witchcraft in the Highlands of Scotland in 1662. The show travels through time to explore the folklore surrounding Isobel, including witch trials, testimonies, storms, mythology, and more.
Hi Barbara, thanks for joining! What Jonah Knew spans eight years, beginning with the disappearance of Henry Bird. Not long after, Jonah Pressman is born. As Jonah grows older, it becomes apparent that he seemingly remembers a past life—Henry’s life. Where did you get the inspiration for this story?
As a journalist I wrote a lot about psychology, including memory and trauma. Some years ago I was assigned to write an article about past-life regression therapy. As part of my research, I had a session with a past-life therapist and I had a memory of a pretty gruesome life during the Holocaust. The session shook me up, but I didn’t know what to make of it. Was it real or imaginary? Not long after that, a friend gave me a copy of a book by Dr. Ian Stevenson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia who for decades had been studying young children who begin talking spontaneously at a very early age—usually between two and four—about a previous life. The research was both credible and compelling—and blew me away.
At the same time I was pursuing my interest in Buddhist meditation and heard various Tibetan Buddhist teachers—who were considered to be reincarnations themselves, including the Dalai Lama—talk about past and future lives as casually as last Thanksgiving or next Christmas. I was fascinated by all of it. And then one day the idea for the novel just came to me as a sort of download while walking down the street in New York.
What struck me most about What Jonah Knew is its strong themes of motherhood: every woman in the story has her own experiences with motherhood, her children, and maternal instinct. Can you speak to these themes and your decision to include them in a thriller?
I became a mother in my early 20s and the thing that most mothers—and fathers—discover when they have children is that their hearts will forever be running around outside their bodies. Motherhood is a lifelong high-wire act, balancing fierce love with letting go. You do all you can to protect your children, while surrendering to what you can’t control. But at a certain point you really do have to let go and let your kids find their own way in the world, mistakes and all. In my view, the love of a child is the most exquisite—and sometimes painful—love there is. I’ve had no choice but to write about it.
While you have a background in writing essays, plays, and memoir, What Jonah Knew is your first novel—what has your experience been with transitioning from nonfiction to fiction? What made you want to pen a suspense/thriller?
There was a big learning curve making the leap, but writing What Jonah Knew was the most fun I’ve ever had—that is, except on the days when I felt like tearing my hair out. Seriously, the big difference between writing fiction and nonfiction is the creative freedom. With fiction, you don’t have to stick to the facts. You may include real research in your work, as I did, but then you’re free to invent the rest. Though I’ve loved writing memoir and personal essays, I always felt somewhat limited by my own experience. Fiction opens up a whole world of possibility. The wonderful writer Jessamyn West said, “Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.”
In terms of writing a thriller, the material itself suggested that a novel of psychological suspense was the only way to go. There were so many juicy questions to ask: How would a mother react if suddenly her child announced that he had another mom? That he’d been killed in a previous life? What would happen if he encountered that other mom or, worse, much much worse, the murderer? There was no way to write this story except as a thriller!
Another strong theme in the book is spirituality: desperate to understand her son’s memories and experiences, his mother seeks explanation through spiritual sources. I was surprised (and impressed) with the level of depth and complexity of spirituality in this book. How did you research and prepare to speak on these spiritual themes?
The concept of rebirth or reincarnation is a core principle in many spiritual traditions, including the Kabbalah in Judaism, the religion in which I was raised. It was really interesting to be able to explore reincarnation from a spiritual perspective, as well via the scientific research being conducted at the University of Virginia. What’s more, I’ve been studying and practicing Buddhist meditation since the early 90’s, and reincarnation is taken for granted in Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism. It was pretty organic for me to to pull in all these different perspectives, though I researched a lot of source material to make sure I everything them right.
Lastly, I always like to ask authors—what’s on the horizon for you? Can we look forward to more novels, or do you have other projects in the works?
Yes, absolutely. I’m in the early stages of the next novel. I can’t say too much about it, except that it’s another thriller that once again will bring my two favorite topics together—murder and metaphysics!
The Cluesletter is a biweekly newsletter for mystery lovers. Each issue has genre news and updates, resources for authors, eBook deals, a featured mystery audio podcast, and a featured interview. Issues are always free and always written with the mystery-loving community in mind.
About Manon: I am a mystery reader and lover who is lucky enough to work with books daily. As the publishing operations manager at AuthorImprints, I help self-published authors create and promote their books. Thanks to the Cluesletter, I can explore and share my two loves, mysteries and publishing. Thank you for reading!