Thursday, November 12, 2020


Mary Anna Evans:

The Secret to a Great Mystery: Make Me Feel Something

When I think of my favorite mystery writers (Agatha Christie, Tony Hillerman, Donis Casey…) or my favorite mystery characters (Miss Marple, Joe Leaphorn, Alafair Tucker…), it’s not hard to put my finger on the reason why I enjoy those writers and those characters. While it’s a given that these are authors who craft tight, intelligent narratives, and Christie in particular is known for her puzzle plots, I think that they offer readers something more. I also think that this extra special “something” isn’t directly related to the plot at all. This may be a surprise to people who consider reading crime fiction to be a purely intellectual exercise focused on determining “whodunit,” but I somehow doubt that devoted crime fiction enthusiasts think of their favorite books in that limited way. 

For me, part of the delight in mystery novels comes from spending time with characters with whom I feel a connection. My favorite protagonists feel like friends to me. My favorite antagonists also strike an emotional chord. They are more than just crazed killers. They are realistic people who have chosen to do evil. I may not agree with their reasons, but those reasons make logical sense. Most importantly, the ideal antagonist’s actions make emotional sense. When they are unmasked and their crimes are revealed, I feel a sense of relief that justice has been served, but the real artists are those writers who are able to portray the criminal’s motivations so convincingly that I feel a twinge of regret that things have gone so badly for them. When I love a book, it is because its writer made me feel something. 

As a writing professor, I tell my students that if they take just one thing away from their time with me, it is the phrase “Make them feel something.” If they are so inclined, I suggest that they make a poster with just those four words and hang it over their computer. The relationship between a reader and a writer takes place over a long distance, but it is real. Sharing emotions with someone so far away, not to mention the many others who have also read the book, is satisfying. It makes us want to repeat the experience. When young readers encounter a book that makes them feel something, they become readers for life. 

Put a book in my hands that touches my emotions, and I’ll be back for more.


Mary Anna Evans is the author of the Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries, and she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing at the University of Oklahoma. Her crime fiction has received recognition including the Oklahoma Book Award, the Benjamin Franklin Award, and three Florida Book Awards bronze medals. Her shorter work has appeared in publications including The Atlantic, The Louisville Review, Dallas Morning News, and many others. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and she is a licensed professional engineer. Her latest release, Wrecked, was published by Sourcebooks in October 2020

Mary Anna’s favorite books by the authors featured in this post are:  

Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories by Agatha Christie 

Dance Hall of the Dead by Tony Hillerman 

The Old Buzzard Had It Coming by Donis Casey


Sara E Johnson said...

I had the honor of appearing with Mary Anna at The Poisoned Press recently. I loved Wrecked. Mary Anna constructed an intriguing tight mystery. I identified with Faye's struggle parenting a teen daughter. Mary Anna's writing made me FEEL regret - those years are in the past, and relief - those years are in the past!

Katy McCoy said...

After a steady diet of "newer" mysteries, with spys, missing children, people who are not what they appear to be, I had to sit down yesterday with a JA Jance mystery. I immediately felt "at home", ensconced in Arizona, with friends - and a great read. Luckily, I've still got some of her mysteries to read.