Bluegrass"" conjures up visions of Kentucky thoroughbreds and bourbon, but as Denton--a p.i. based in Washington, D.C.--demonstrates in this engrossing true-crime drama, the state is also a dark and bloody background for racketeering and drug smuggling. The heart of Denton's tale is the pursuit of aristocratic, criminally talented Andrew Carter Thornton II by Ralph Ross, a blue-collar policeman who tracks Thornton through layers of Kentucky corruption. A nondescript-military-school student, Thornton desperately wants to be a legend; he lies, steals, and (possibly) murders his way to a reputation as a smuggler, ninja, and possible CIA operative. By the time Thornton dies parachuting into Kentucky with a duffel bag full of cocaine and weapons, Ross has traced his dirty footprints to the doorstep of numerous Kentuckians: Gov. John Y. Brown; the state's head of the Drug Enforcement Agency; the Lexington Police department; and maybe even the CIA. One of Denton's strengths is in showing how Kentucky's high society--many of whose members' fortunes were boosted by bootlegging, gambling, and municipal corruption--aided and abetted Thornton's schemes. Far weaker, however, is her portrayal of Ross, who not only fails to gain our sympathy because of his use of such shady methods as electronic eavesdropping, phone tapping, and clandestine surveillance, but who also fails to come to life on the page, remaining vague in voice and physical presence. Moreover, Denton periodically inserts clunky, boilerplate prose into the narrative, as if to conform to the mediocre norm of sex-and-scandal reporting; but she's too honest a journalist to condescend effectively, and it doesn't work. Overall, an impressive job, but with too many ragged ends to be wholly successful as art.