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Book Review: "Assumption: A Novel"

Joe Peters |
October 24, 2011 | 9:37 p.m. PDT


Everett's newest novel hits bookstores today (SF Gate.com).
Everett's newest novel hits bookstores today (SF Gate.com).
The detective fiction genre has many conventions. One of the more reliable ones is that the true criminal, when he or she is found, will almost never be the most likely suspect.

"Assumption", Percival Everett’s latest novel, is at first glance a leisurely examination of three cases investigated by an assistant sheriff in a small New Mexico town.  This policeman, Ogden Walker, is unmarried, almost always unruffled, and seemingly friendly with everyone. His refuge and recreation is fishing, often with his colleague and good buddy Warren Fragua.  He is a mixed-race man in a predominantly Hispanic and white town, but this does not seem to concern him much, besides being the source of a few wry asides on black life in New Mexico.

However, as in most detective novels and Percival Everett stories, nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems.

This, after all, the author who once stated flatly, “There are no rules. I don’t believe in any rules when it comes to fiction. If I can make you believe it, it’s fair game. Probably when I’m working, if I can make myself believe it, then it's fair game.”  For readers who need reminding, the title of the book is ample warning not to take things for granted - we all know the joke about what happens when you assume.

As noted earlier, "Assumption" is a recounting of three cases. In the first, “A Difficult Likeness,” Walker investigates the murder of an old woman who turns out to have connections to a hate group. More complications ensue -he acquires a love interest, and additional killings follow.

In “My American Cousin,” a woman enlists Walker’s help to look for a vanished cousin from Ireland. In the process, they discover an unrelated murder, and then the woman herself disappears. This results in the following exchange, which repeats (almost verbatim!) similar dialogue in the previous case:

“Did you get a look at her ID?”

“Never thought to ask.”

At this point the reader may start to wonder about the competence of Officers Walker and Co. This feeling only grows as Ogden crisscrosses New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, in pursuit of the truth and a woman named Carla Reynolds. But Everett’s tone remains so casual, and Walker’s efforts so earnest, that we eventually dismiss any nagging doubts about the case or its resolution.  

“The Shift,” however, is where the wheels come off the wagon for fans of straight detective fiction.  In this case one more trope comes into play –the tale of the wrongly accused detective who must clear his name. Walker, last on the scene prior to the murder of a fish and game patrolman, is fingered for killing him. Naturally, he sets out to prove his innocence. This leads to even stranger and stranger events until we arrive at one which is meant to cast doubt on everything that has come before.

One wonders if Everett simply grew tired of his protagonist and decided to have a little fun with him and, by extension, the readers. But to what end? I do not think even he knows the answer. That does not diminish the quality of the writing, or the pleasure of the read. But for something supposed to be an experiment in genre-bending, it feels more like a prank gone wrong.

Reach Contributor Joe Peters here.


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