I only read this book because it was given to me accidentally by the library. It is not something I would normally have read, so I decided to broaden my horizons after seeing that it was about Northern Kentucky, where I currently live, and Cincinnati, where I was born, which is just across the river.
I was quickly drawn into the history of Ann Drahmann in the prologue and chapter one, but then the author goes back to detail the rise of syndicated crime in Newport, Kentucky, and the book gets pretty dry fast. After a few teasing pages about Ann, the author goes into a long and boring enumeration of every member of organized crime in Northern Kentucky. You would think reading about illegal gambling, prostitution, selling bootleg liquor during Prohibition, and murders would, if not exactly be exciting, because we are talking about real people getting killed here, at least keep the reader on the edge of his or her seat. But, alas, that is not the case. It feels like Messick lists about 5000 different people throughout the book, which is probably not too far off the mark. To make it more confusing, he alternately calls people by their first and last names, and sometimes nicknames. The forward introduces the book as “a tale of two entities: an ill-starred if courageous woman and a corrupt vice-ridden river city on the south bank of the Ohio River. The separate stories run parallel, (i)” The stories may run parallel, but they don’t necessarily run smoothly. It feels more like the narrative is a zigzag line bouncing back and forth between the two stories, sometimes even doubling back on itself as it goes back in time to provide additional explanatory details.
Another reviewer mentioned that the book reads a lot more like a newspaper than a novel. I’m not sure that’s true, but I don’t exactly read the real newspaper much. I do know that I was bothered by the fact that the author never says how he knows the facts that he’s reporting. Messick was a newspaper reporter for years, and reporters never reveal their sources, so old habits must die hard. Also, the author has an annoying habit of referring to himself as “this author,” trying to never use the first person, as reporters are not supposed to refer to themselves in their pieces. However, he does slip up and use “we” once later in the book. This book presents an odd juxtaposition of distant narration and random, and mostly unnecessary, remarks from Ann about sex and who she considers sleeping with. I haven’t read many biographies, either, but I think they usually list their sources, whether they are other books or conversations with or letters from the subject. This book mentions some pretty specific events that would not be public knowledge, like Ann’s conversations with her second husband Charley, and most of Trigger Mike’s words and behavior. I suppose most of this information could have been in records from the IRS investigation, but I don’t know why Ann would have given all this information to “the boys” that wasn’t relevant to their investigation of Trigger Mike Coppola, or if she did mention it, why they would enter it into the record. And that’s if their records were even available to the public then. I kept thinking there would be a point in the book where it would say Ann sat down and had a long interview with the author, but it becomes apparent that there was no time for that, since Ann takes off for Europe, and stays there until her death. Also, speaking of Ann’s husbands, her first husband, whose name isn’t even given, doesn’t even get a full paragraph. He is just “a young sailor” who s somehow “discarded and almost forgotten,” (14). For all the intimate details about Ann’s life, we don’t get to find out why she was in such a hurry to get married, only to get divorced so soon. Granted, she probably only married him because she was pregnant, but I wouldn’t think a teenage mother would be in such a hurry to be an unwed mother in the 1930s. Unless it didn’t matter, as long as they were married when the baby was born was all that counted. Anyway, poor baby Joan and her anonymous father.
One thing that, while minor, bothered me inordinately, was the question of Ann’s race. Her face is right there, taking up the whole front cover of the book, so it was hard to ignore. She definitely looks at least part African-American to me. I kept wondering, is she black? Would a black girl have been going to Catholic school in the 1930s? Would not one but presumably three white men have married Ann if she were obviously black? The issue seems to be settled on page 59 where it says “her family background was superior to Doris’s—both parents being native-born Italians.” I suppose it’s possible for there to be black Italians, but Trigger Mike would probably not consider an African person born in Italy superior to a second or third generation Italian-American. Then Mike says to Ann “your mother fucked niggers. That’s why you look like a nigger. You are a nigger,” (100). That was not exactly my word choice, but more or less what I had been thinking for the past 100 pages. Ann apparently does not think she is black at all, because her comment on Mike’s words is “ ‘As long as I live,’ Ann said later, [whenever later is] ‘those words will drive me out of my mind. I don’t think anything I can do will wipe out the memory of that dirty swine’s horrible remark,’ “ (100).
This book, while boring and confusing me in a lot of places, was still interesting, especially since I know, at least generally, the location of most of the places mentioned in Ohio and Kentucky. I am very glad I was born too late to have had to live through the days of mob hits and corrupt politicians, and it’s scary to think that this was the rule rather than the exception for decades. Despite the book’s issues, I would still recommend it to people who live in this region.
It is interesting to note that this book was published with two different subtitles. My copy from 1995 says "The true story of Ann Drahmann Coppola, Trigger Mike Coppola and the Mob in Northern Kentucky." I was searching for an image of the cover to add to the listing here, but all the images I found had the subtitle "The story of Ann Coppola--the hatcheck girl who married a Mafia potentate, then turned Federal witness against him." According to one eBay listing, this is the title on the first edition.