Percival Everett’s Assumption (Graywolf, 2011) is a collection of three mystery novellas centering on Deputy Ogden Walker, an ex-military police officer of mixed race, who now works as a deputy in the “hick-full, redneck county” of Plata, New Mexico. Due to its episodic structure, reading Assumption feels a bit like reading an entire mystery series in one sitting. Each novella poses a new murder (or series of murders) for Ogden to unravel with the help (or antagonism) of the rest of the provincial officers at the sheriff’s department. In the first section, Ogden searches for the killer of an old woman he’s known for years, one who always disliked him for being black. In the second, Ogden must save a prostitute who has run afoul of her dealer. The last depicts Ogden clearing his name after a New Mexico game warden accuses him of murder.
Everett’s prose does not aim at flowery. In fact, the only elevated passages deal with Walker’s one passion outside his job—fly fishing the mountain streams of his jurisdiction. The straightforward, dialogue-heavy style of Assumption creates a cinematic feeling, allowing for a quick read. This refusal to editorialize allows the author to depict the West’s underclass without judgment or condescension. Prostitutes, meth addicts, hayseed bigots—the people Ogden must deal with—typically antagonize him for being black, yet the deadpan narration conveys their straitened lives with empathy.
To Everett’s credit, these novellas stretch the mystery genre’s formula. Some of the series’ strongest moments are Ogden’s many conversations with his mother, a woman constantly fretting over her son, always foisting food on him. These tender scenes take what could have been a familiar, hard-bitten protagonist and push him into surprising, real, and—at times—humorous territory. For example, in my favorite exchange, Ogden’s mother needles him for developing a crush on the daughter of one of the murder victims.
If the first two novellas take an expansive view of what a mystery can be, the final installment aims to subvert it outright. Specifically, a shift in point of view promptly throws everything that comes before into question. I won’t spoil the twist, but once you close the cover of Assumption you can’t help but feel that the book has flown in the face of convention. Rather than neatly solving its final puzzle, Assumption leaves us more mystified than ever, wondering if there can ever be such a thing as “case closed.”
- Listen to “The Appropriation of Cultures,” an Everett story that deals with race and class tensions in a bar full of drunk frat boys, and a nineteen-forty Martin guitar with a Barkus-Berry pickup. It’s read here for Selected Shorts by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.