Indiana author covers timely issue in new mystery set largely in San Juan County

Mark Langley hopes to bring attention to plight of missing and murdered indigenous women

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Langley's new novel "When Silence Screams" is the third in a series focusing on a fictional Navajo private investigator.
  • The new book deals with the possible abduction of a 19-year-old Navajo woman.
  • Many passages in the novel take place in Shiprock, Kirtland, Farmington and Aztec.

FARMINGTON — Author Mark Langley says he didn't set out to write a novel that capitalizes on one of the more urgent issues facing Indian Country these days. But it's hard to imagine any subject being as timely as the one he tackles in his new book "When Silence Screams."

Langley's most recent book, released at the end of August, is the latest in a series of mystery novels centered on Navajo private investigator Arthur Nakai, a fictional former Marine and one-time Border Patrol agent.

Though Langley lives far from the Four Corners — he is a resident of Schererville, Indiana, southeast of Chicago — the retired businessman has had a lifelong fascination with the desert Southwest and chose to focus on the region, specifically life on the Navajo Nation, when he crafted his first novel in 2016.

Author Mark Langley has written extensively about life and death on the Navajo Nation in his series of mystery novels.

That debut effort, 2018's "Path of the Dead," introduced Nakai to Langley's readers and wound up winning a Feathered Quill Book Award in the mystery category. He followed that with "Death Waits in the Dark" in 2020, another mystery that is set against a background of the drilling and fracking industry in San Juan County.

"When Silence Screams" is perhaps Langley's darkest novel yet. It tackles head on the subject of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, an issue that largely was ignored until a few years ago before beginning to pick up momentum recently.

Langley said the timeliness of the issue and the release of his new novel is coincidental, as he became aware of the subject in 2016 and determined then he wanted to write about it.

"I felt a need to help raise awareness in any way I could," he said. "I wanted to convey what actually happens to these girls without getting too graphic."

'That made them a person ... '

Langley said he educated himself about the issue by signing up for newsletters and absorbing other information published by the Murdered & Missing Indigenous Women campaign started by the nonprofit Native Women's Wilderness organization. According to the organization's website, the murder rate for indigenous women is three times higher than the rate for Anglo-American women and 10 times higher than the rate for all other ethnicities.

"When Silence Screams," the latest novel from Mark Langley, takes place at locations throughout San Juan County.

Those figures are glaring, but Langley said what really captured his attention was seeing the faces of missing or murdered women on the fliers the organization sent out.

"That made them a person, not just a name on a flier," he said.

Langley said he wasn't trying to capitalize on the issue from a marketing perspective, but he is eager to help shine a light on a subject that he believes has been ignored for too long.

"I really wanted people to know about this and be aware it's going on," he said, explaining that the issue is not limited to just the United States or Canada, but to indigenous women around the world.

The subject finally seems to have caught the attention of government officials and the media, especially after President Trump issued a 2019 proclamation designating a national day of awareness for missing and murdered Native women and girls and signed an executive order that creates a task force for missing and murder indigenous peoples in the United States.

Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the formation of a new unit that will focus on analyzing and solving the cases of missing and murdered indigenous people.

The issue has even popped up in popular culture, with filmmaker Taylor Sheridan ("Hell or High Water," "Sicario," "Yellowstone") exploring it in his 2017 thriller "Wind River" starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

Nevertheless, Langley has been frustrated by the lack of response by the public, noting that " … no one seemed to care," he said. "I figured the best way to (bring attention to the issue) is just tell it in a story."

Langley's tale focuses on Nakai's efforts to locate a missing 19-year-old woman whose family fears she has been abducted and forced into the world of sex trafficking. When a 15-year-old girl later goes missing and the body of another woman turns up in a lake on the reservation, Nakai struggles to put the pieces together in an effort to find the missing 19-year-old.

For the most part, Langley said he avoids graphic descriptions of crime scenes and the violent acts themselves. But he provides enough detail so that readers get an accurate idea of how brutal those situations can be.

"You can't just kind of candy coat things," he said. "If it makes (readers) uneasy, it makes 'em uneasy. Maybe they'll learn something because it is so tragic."

Langley noted the work being done by the MMIW campaign to help the families of victims and said he plans on donating a percentage of the book's sales to the organization. He said he feels an obligation to the victims to call attention to their plight, and he believes his commitment to detail and accuracy in writing about police procedure and the processing of crime scenes helps deliver a more honest portrayal of what is happening.

Langley, who said he hopes to relocate to New Mexico soon, perhaps even to Farmington, spends weeks at a time in the Southwest researching his books and visiting with police. Many of the passages in "When Silence Screams" will be familiar to local readers, as they take place in Shiprock, Kirtland, Farmington and Aztec, as well as various other New Mexico locales.

The author said he also has a good relationship with Navajo botanist and geologist Arnold Clifford, who he said has been a wealth of information on the intricacies of the Navajo language and other elements of Native culture.

"I need to be able to get out there and see it, feel it, smell it, taste it," Langley said of his approach to researching the places he writes about. "I want to make it as truthful as I can make it."

"When Silence Screams" is available on Amazon.com.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.