I’ve said I was going to stop reviewing, but I usually am willing to make an exception for a Tyrus Books offering. After all, I’ve yet to put down a Bleak House or Tyrus offering. Randall Peffer’s latest, Screams & Whispers, is no exception. In this latest entry to Peffer’s Cape Islands series, he revisits his broken public defender, Micheal Decastro. Decastro is no longer practicing law. Wrecked by events earlier in the series around drag queen Tuki Aprecio, Decastro now works a fishing boat with his father, Caesar. We don’t meet him living the idyllic life of a fisherman in Cape Cod, though.
No, Decastro is sitting on the dock holding a shotgun and weeping. Tuki, who is now fully female (Read it. It’ll make sense.) is in trouble again. The Dragon Lady is stalking her, said Dragon Lady being Wen Ling, a vicious drug dealer from Southeast Asia willing to kill to get her hands on a million-dollar ruby belonging to Vietnam’s Buddhist monks.
Decastro is lured to Vietnam with his father in tow on a bloody chase through the country to rescue Tuki. The story eventually becomes less about Decastro riding to the rescue than Tuki trying to overcome the insane monster killing her family and holding her hostage. It also becomes about Caesar Decastro’s reconciliation with his past as an MP during what the locals call “The American War.”
Peffer’s Vietnam is a very different country from what we’re usually presented. There’s no R. Lee Ermey barking at recruits about his beloved Corps, no incoherent Marlon Brando blissfully unaware Martin Sheen is there to kill him. This is a country that’s moved on, communist in name only. Indeed, the country’s communist party is given a token mention at best, with a peripheral character serving as a party member. The country resembles more of a Third World version of America, with the primitive conditions of the rural areas blending seamlessly with Saigon (No one locally seems to call it Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi. Indeed, the Decastro’s response to seeing the various fishermen seems to be to ask them what the locals are catching and how much they’re getting for their hauls. The police react as one might expect American or European police to react.
It’s Wen Ling, the so-called “Dragon Lady,” who strains credibility. Early on, it’s addressed by one of the American characters pondering whether Wen Ling is a fugitive from a 1930’s movie featuring the invincible Asian supervillain. As the story progresses, we learn she is simply a ruthless drug lord, as murderous and cunning as any from Columbia or Russia or Mexico, but just as vulnerable. We learn even later that Wen Ling is insane, so obsessed with her past and her quest that any blood on her hands is clearly someone else’s fault.
But it’s Tuki who is the star of this story. Her gender ambiguity surgically corrected, she has fled to Vietnam to find the family she lost at the end of the war as an infant to start over and get away from Wen Ling. As Wen Ling destroys those around her, Tuki becomes more and more defiant, becoming in her own mind one of the Buddhist monks she admires to find her inner calm and resist the fiend trying to destroy her.
Screams & Whispers is a harrowing story to get through. Just when you think things can’t get any worse, Peffer finds a new way for Wen Ling to stay one step ahead of everyone else, playing a sick game of keep-away with Tuki’s life. But the real star is the Vietnam of the 2010’s. It’s a modern country that’s put its past behind it. The characters would do well to follow suit.
But then there wouldn’t be a story, would there?