The Quality of Mercy, a debut novel by Katayoun Medhat, is garnering kudos from across the literary landscape. Comparisons to Tony Hillerman, Craig Johnson and others are being bandied about. This is high praise indeed, and author Medhat has the credentials to assist her in a successful writing career.
Medhat’s childhood was spent in Germany and Iran. Her education continued in London and Berlin. Medhat has a Ph.D. in medical anthropology and has done research on the Navajo Nation. This last experience is most evident in The Quality of Mercy as she describes life on the largest Native American reservation in the U.S.
This story begins with the bizarre discovery of a young man’s body near Chimney Rock, which is located near the Navajo Nation. The town closest to this crime is the fictional town of Milagro. Sheriff Weismaker shows up on site with K, one of his officers. Readers will learn that K is short for Franz Kafka, and grow to understand that the hero of this novel has probably located himself in the rural Southwest so that most people will not recognize the name.
Most violent deaths faced by K’s department are easily solved. Domestic violence gone terminal, DUIs resulting in fatalities, and the time-honored bar fight. Not much detecting needed. This one is truly a mystery, especially in the way the body is positioned. K has an immediate sense of the importance of this fact. When the victim’s identity is finally revealed, K is sent to the Navajo Nation to partner up with his Native American counterpart, Robbie Begay.
When K returns to the scene of the crime with Begay, a talented tracker, new clues are discovered from tire tracks and shoe impressions. This sends the pair on the hunt. As this unlikely team delves into the past life of the victim, they are led on a somewhat meandering path across the vast reservation. K and Begay look up the victim’s past acquaintances; some choose to help and others can’t. Begay and K stumble across a burned-out meth lab and pass by many small dwellings on the “Rez” that suffer from lack of access to modern amenities and outright neglect by an uncaring “bílagáana” (white people) society.
As Begay and K travel along the remote roads, they exchange stories, and Medhat reveals the characters’ strengths, weaknesses and desires. Begay begins by seeming not to care about catching the killer, while K cares too much.
Medhat relates through K and Begay’s conversations the sad truth about how Native Americans are perceived by some in the Southwest. The inequality between responses to the deaths of whites versus minorities is enlightening and disappointing. K observes during his interactions with the Diné their solemn acceptance and resilience.
Medhat takes advantage in crafting her mystery to shed light on the past experiences of the Navajo, the long walk, the murder of their livestock and, most appalling, the taking away of their children, sent to “residential” schools where they were stripped of their culture and sometimes their lives.
In K, Medhat has created a unique character. He is a naturalized American who has a twin sister living in England. He is of Jewish heritage but is an agnostic with many questions about life. He is a deep thinker who wonders about his decision to leave an academic world 10 years ago to become a Western lawman. There seems to be a close connection between K’s concerns and ponderings as those in the works by the original Franz Kafka.
The Quality of Mercy by Medhat introduces readers to a new investigative duo whose detecting path may not run straight or speedy, but justice will be served in the end. It will be interesting to see what trouble Begay and K get into on their next adventure.
Leslie Doran is a retired teacher, freelance writer and former New Mexican who claims Durango as her forever home.