In an age when writers are routinely advised to stick to one genre, promote themselves online and even, like car manufacturers and soda companies, build their brands, Percival Everett has consistently done the opposite. Over a career that has spanned nearly thirty years, he has published seventeen novels, three short story collections, three collections of poetry, one book for children and one novella. His interests have ranged from westerns (Wounded, God’s Country) to science fiction (Zulus), from retellings of Greek myths (Frenzy, For Her Dark Skin) to political satire (A History of the African-American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond). He doesn’t actively advertise himself or his work—he doesn’t have a website or social media accounts, for instance.
His latest novel, Assumption, was recently published to typically little fanfare. It reads, deceptively, like a simple detective story. Deputy Ogden Walker is investigating the murder of Mrs. Bickers, an old woman whose long-barrel .22 pistol he had confiscated earlier that day. The killer appears to be familiar with her house—she was found beneath a hidden trapdoor—but there isn’t a clear motive for the murder. Who would kill a woman like Mrs. Bickers? As far as anyone knows, she has no enemies. She’s not rich. And she lives in the “middle of no place,” as one character remarks. (The middle of no place is a small town in a “hick-full, redneck county” in New Mexico.)
There is only one item of value in Mrs. Bickers’s house: the deed to a parcel of land, where Walker will find dozens of holes in the ground—evidence that someone was looking for something. Then the bodies of four men are discovered, apparently smothered to death in the back of a stolen van. One of them was in a photo in Mrs. Bickers’s living room. To complicate matters, FBI agents turn up at Walker’s door to let him know that the man from the picture is one of their own, working undercover.
So far, so genre.
But in Everett’s hands, this murder mystery is complicated at every step by the assumptions that Walker and others around him make about murder victims, criminals and the police, and about race, religion and sexual orientation. Walker disarms Mrs. Bickers because she fired two shots through her door when she “heard a noise,” waking up the whole neighborhood. “Now you’re taking my protection away,” she says, echoing, almost perfectly, the periodic complaints of right-wingers in this country, especially after the election of Barack Obama. But what, or whom, Mrs. Bickers thinks she needs protection from defies her expectations.
Walker is not immune to baseless conjectures. When the body of one of the four victims in the van, a teenager named Jose Marotta, disappears from the funeral home, Walker wonders aloud if it’s because Marotta was a drug mule and the drugs had to be recovered from his stomach. (Once again, that assumption is disproved, in a surprising but satisfying way.) Even readers’ expectations about tough detectives in mystery novels are periodically challenged; Walker neglects to ask for the identification of a woman who walks into the crime scene and claims to be a relative of Mrs. Bickers. Instead, he offers her condolences and a place to stay while she’s in town.
As clues begin to pile up, Walker grows increasingly taciturn, not sharing his theories of the case with anyone. But he solves the mystery swiftly—almost abruptly—before being presented with another one. In the second part of Assumption, Caitlin Alison, a young Irish tourist, is looking for her cousin, a certain Fiona McDonough, last seen in the middle of no place. Walker’s investigation leads him to a remote cabin outside town, where he finds a woman who has been shot. It just isn’t Fiona. In the last mystery of the triptych, a fish-and-game patrolman named Terry Lowell is found dead, just a few hours after arresting a poacher, and the last person to have seen him alive is Walker. By now, however, the novel has trained its readers that no piece of information can be taken at face value. (I read this book on a plane, and when I reached its conclusion I gasped loudly, leading my seatmate to give me a suspicious look.)