Welcome To Cooper

Written by Tariq Ashkanani

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.

Welcome To Cooper
Thomas and Mercer
RRP: £8.99
Released: October 1 2021

Fresh from Washington, DC. and newly arrived in Cooper - a ramshackle town in Nebraska - Thomas Levine could be hallucinating. To be precise he has already started the novel by informing the reader that he is compelled (by whom?) to tell a story to an unidentified group of men. As he considers his brief he rejects the tale involving a red-hooded girl visiting her grandmother: “they’ve heard that one before.” Are we in prison or a bin for the criminally insane?

It could be either or both; the early pages are so fraught with mystery and angst that, notwithstanding a hint of gay sex, interest is held in abeyance. By now one can deduce that Levine is indeed incarcerated, released intermittently to entertain a bevy of cops, but no one gets hurt although no one is friendly. These are the same men who arrested him after the summary killing - execution rather - of an alleged rapist. Is Levine an innocent man fallen foul of his colleagues, or a psychopath ostensibly baring his soul?

Whether or not he was framed for the current murder, there is no doubt concerning his back story: a downward spiral starting with an abusive childhood that led eventually to a fearful addiction to violence and the bad career choice of the police that culminated in the Drugs Squad. Drugs quietened his demons and progress was swift from arresting addicts to sampling the product, to using and then dealing. Finally, his girlfriend overdosed and drowned in the bath; as a result his criminal activities were exposed and he was suspected of involvement in her death. With his future in the balance his wily superiors saw an opportunity: Levine might be venal but he had his uses so – poacher turned gamekeeper - he was exiled to the mid-West in the hope that he would clean up a morass of corruption in Cooper, Nebraska.

If Levine was aware of his mission, he was oblivious. Distraught with grief and anger and now fuelled by alcohol rather than drugs, he was crawling in the bottom of a pit. He was to make one friend in this strange bleak town, gravitating to another castaway who once boarded the Greyhound to escape her own demons and when the bus stopped, she got off at Cooper. She’d been here ever since running a bar: a formidable and eccentric loner with a bright pink streak in her hair and a pump-action shotgun behind the bar.

That was just the start: the build-up to mayhem. Ashkanani, not content with corruption pervading one small town, now introduces a more vicious element from the outside. It’s predictable: Cooper’s police are so unmanageable there has to be a controlling force or there is no plot, only chaos. Levine’s last battle against odds is played out against a background of boundless prairie under endless skies where sagging barns are haunted by snakes and the last impoverished farmer is subverted.

One finishes this book with relief. If you never got inside the minds of psychopaths, you may now have some idea of what makes a sadist tick. But there was too much violence, too many bad characters and only one who engages sympathy. It’s significant that this should be a woman, more so that she is the most obvious victim. As for Levine, protagonist and pawn, he comes over a strange hero as he exchanges the festering sore that was Washington DC for the unexpected horrors of Nebraska.

Half of this bland but salubrious state will tear Welcome to Cooper to pieces but the other half will be queueing at the book stores while the cognoscenti in Omaha’s Press Club will merely raise an eyebrow at the ubiquitous misspelling of “all right”.

A novel that goes over the top but it has a certain appeal.

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