Monday, April 9, 2012

What I'm Reading: The Bluegrass Conspiracy

It took me moving out of Kentucky before I ever got around to reading this book. And actually, I had completely forgotten about it, although it was a hot topic for many years after it was published. To put it quite bluntly, this is a book that only a Kentuckian, who has grown up in the central Kentucky area would love. As one reviewer said, "This is a great story told by a horrible writer. If you can get past the boring parts, it's a really good read." And I couldn't have said it better myself.

From the late 70's to early 80's, the Lexington Police Department was, apparently, notoriously corrupt. I say apparently because I was born in the late 70's and if it didn't involve My Little Ponies or Rainbow Brite, I was not cognizant of it. I certainly wasn't keeping tabs on John Y. Brown Jr, who would later become governor, or Anita Madden, who has since entered my radar due to her outrageously grand Derby parties. Also, we bought a townhome that is located a chunk of land which used to be her farm.

The initial jumping-off point for the book is the suspected murder of Melanie Flynn, the sister of Cincinnati Reds infielder, Doug Flynn. Supposedly, she knew too much about the goings-on of Lexington drug dealers and found herself drowned in a cave close to Hall's on the River. Except, they never found her body. I remember Doug Flynn from elementary school. He was an avid D.A.R.E. spokesman and came to my school a couple of times to speak on behalf of the program run by the Frankfort Police Department. I also remember the adults being more impressed by his presence than we were. Cincinnati Reds who? Despite the involvement of a psychic, who believed her body was at the bottom of Herrington Lake (a lovely weekend watering hole where I've always wanted to own a lakehouse), nothing has ever turned up on Melanie and she is still considered missing, although most likely murdered.

If it can be believed, 2 men ran the largest drug and gun-running ring in North America out of a house in south Lexington. Denton alludes to the idea that the entire thing started when Andrew Thornton II and Bradley Bryant sold the drugs that were recovered during drug busts made by the Lexington Police Department. And most people who were around during that era agree that the LPD was corrupt from the inside, out. So, "The Company," as Thornton and Bryant took to calling their organization was born and, over the course of a couple of years, grew to massive proportions. At one point, it included a cartel in Columbia and a casino in Las Vegas. Multiple associates were hired to fly drug-laden planes from Kentucky to Georgia to Florida to Columbia, and back. Planes were constantly bought and sold to keep authorities off of their trail. And somehow, at one point, Bryant got mixed up with the mob.

Throw into this mix a man named John Y. Brown, who knew a man named Harland Sanders...Colonel Sanders, to be exact. Colonel Sanders owned a tiny mom-n'-pop restaurant and had been busy perfecting his fried chicken recipe, complete with all of those herbs and spices.  Colonel Sanders soon started his search for a business partner to help him expand his new venture, Kentucky Fried Chicken. What he got was John Y. Brown Jr. who ended up buying him out. So Brown, the new Chicken Man, was expanding his chicken empire with Colonel Sanders' face, and feeding his gambling addiction at the tables in Vegas. Brown halted his gambling long enough to declare his intentions to run for governor in 1979, with his wife, a former Miss America, Phyllis George. Although he wasn't particularly politically-inclined, he had been surrounded by politics his whole life. One of his buddies was Dan Chandler, the son of another former Kentucky governor, "Happy" Chandler. One of our current U.S. Congressmen serving Kentucky is Ben Chandler, nephew of Dan. Dan also ran with the drug and gambling crowd, according to Denton, and was along the periphery of "The Company," although not  a lot is said about him.

And then we have Anita Madden, who is so intimately tied to the Lexington horsey set that she is basically as famous as our thoroughbreds. She owned Hamburg Place, a 2000-acre farm that had produced 5 Kentucky Derby winners and 5 Belmont Stakes winners, including the first triple-crown winner, Sir Barton. In 1995, she sold the farm and they broke ground on what is now known in Lexington as Hamburg. It's a developed (or over-developed) area of south Lexington that is home to all big-box stores, approximately 20 restaurants, numerous banks and gas stations, several subdivisions (one of which offers homes beginning in the $500,000's and looks directly at Lowe's), an elementary school, and a main thoroughfare through it all called...of course...Sir Barton Way. The streets are all named after her Derby and Belmont Stakes winners and there is a small horse graveyard along Sir Barton, between Lowe's and Wal-mart where they're all buried.

But before she sold Hamburg Place and went, for the most part, underground, she was infamous for her Derby Eve Gala hosted every year. The rich, the famous, the well-connected all attended. Authors and movie stars and musicians and the politically elite all mixed and mingled to a new theme each year. According to Wikipedia, the theme one year was Rapture of the Deep, which included mermaids, mermen, and a figure of an octopus surrounded by a dry ice fog. Attendees were mistaken for Greek gods and goddesses as they floated about in togas and the Trojan War was reenacted under the gaze of a 16' statue of Zeus clutching a neon thunderbolt. Madden was also known for donning a line of gauzy and transparent dresses from Las Vegas designer, Suzy Cream Cheese. Suzy seemed to be sort of tangled in the Vegas web of sin that included Chandler, Thornton, Bryant, and Brown.

If it's beginning to feel like you're reading a gossip magazine, it may be because the entangled lives of these individuals reads like one. Add 1 drug and gun-running ring + a corrupt DEA officer + the murder of 2 judges + 1 detective who is trying to bring justice to the whole gang = what could be a really riveting novel. Instead, it's heavy on facts and too much detail about passing characters. It is RIDDLED with grammatical errors and misinformation that would have been caught by any half-decent editor. In the last 100 pages or so, she calls one character by 3 names, all spelled slightly different. They weren't aliases, it was just a typo. And as someone who loves to read, it's hard to forgive all of the grammatical errors that occur with regularity throughout the book.

Within the pages of Denton's novel is a really fascinating story about the key players of "The Company" and how they were intertwined with many Kentucky political leaders. And the story raises so many questions like, "Was Drew Thornton murdered or was he really that stupid?" (don't worry, he dies within the first 10 pages of the book. I haven't given anything away) and "What do the other LPD officers who worked those years have to say about their force?" It's a fairly one-sided account from the justice-seeking detective, Ralph Ross, although told through Denton's fingertips.

As I was Googling the book to find an image to use, I came across the CrimLaw blog. The author had written a review of the book and received several comments, some from family members of people mentioned in the book. Few had anything good to say about Denton's book or Denton herself. She's been called a liar and the book has been called a work of fiction. She is accused of only telling half the story and not interviewing enough people. But then she says in her afterward that she wrote a book that did not want to be written and one that made her quite unpopular. Who knows what the full story is? It's hard to know what's a lie or a half-truth if you haven't seen it with your own eyes. Undertaking this story and selling it under the genre of non-fiction was risky and I'm not so sure it paid off.

I would recommend this book for anyone who loves Kentucky history or has grown up in the central Kentucky area and would be interested in reading about many of the names we grew up hearing in our homes. However, be prepared to skim some of the more detail-rich, background story sections which don't add to the plot at all. Unfortunately, I don't know that it would be of much interest to anyone outside of Kentucky. There are far too many well-written true crime thrillers to fall into besides this one if you don't have the Kentucky connection.

What are you reading? I'm looking for my next great late-night novel...

5 comments:

  1. I don't have any knowledge of Kentucky things but it still sounds so twisty and turny and interesting! I'm reading a psychological thriller now!

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  2. Interesting...don't you wonder how certain people get published??

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  3. Still neck deep in my Zombie Phase, and currently reading World War Z. LOVE IT!! So real and so scary! I know Brad Pitt is going to eff it up in the movie, so I won't see it, but very much enjoying the book.

    Is it October yet?? I want me some more Walking Dead!!!

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  4. That sounds seriously fascinating... and it's making me wonder how anyone could make a book about crime, drugs, and fried chicken have boring parts. =)

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  5. I always loved the connection between Phyllis George and KFC. You gotta love that. You lost me on the rest, tho!

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That's it, let it all out....