Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was published in 1994 and spent four years on the New York Times bestseller list. How am I just now reading it?!? True-ish crime that is pure entertainment gold.
I say “true-ish” because the author admits he took some liberties with the timeline and I’m going to hazard a guess and say he did the same with the very long dialog passages. Once I came to terms that I wasn’t reading straight-up nonfiction, I could sit back and enjoy the show.
And what a show it was!
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is about a murder that takes place in Savannah, Georgia in 1981. But I wouldn’t even say the murder is the star of the show. Sharing the stage on equal footing are the city of Savannah and the eccentrics who thrive in the isolated, historic, genteel and very Southern city.
The author began traveling to Savannah on a fluke. He was living in New York City when he realized that for the price of a nice dinner, he could instead fly to different destinations for weekend trips. One of these trips was to Savannah and he became hooked, eventually spending more time in Savannah than NYC. Because he was a Yankee and writer, he was a novelty and a lot of doors were open to him.
And he took full advantage of these open doors, experiencing some highly entertaining events and meeting some truly unique people. These people included a flamboyant drag queen, a voodoo priestess, a career scam artist, and many members of Savannah’s upper crust. He attended murder trials, an all black cotillion where debutantes danced a minuet, the Christmas party all of Savannah society wanted to attend, and a midnight voodoo ritual in a cemetery.
The author seemed to relish all these escapades as well as the people involved, and it showed in his writing. Never judgmental, John Berendt’s writing was pitch perfect. The descriptions of Savannah’s architecture, history, and character were so vivid that I found myself wanting to travel there for a long visit. I can’t say I’d want to meet all the characters (some were just too quirky for me!), but the author did a terrific job developing them through descriptions, dialog, and some anecdotal history about them.
Two of these characters were Jim Williams and Danny Hansford. Jim was a gay antiques dealer who lived in one of the city’s finest houses and clawed his way into Savannah’s upper crust. Danny was a young, volatile, redneck hustler who worked his way into Jim Williams’ household. Late one night, Jim shoots and kills Danny. Was it murder or self-defense? That is the question that FOUR different juries try to figure out. Yes, due to a combination of appeals and one hung jury, Jim Williams was tried for murder four times over ~8 years. Four trials could have been tedious to read about, but the author distills the details down to just what we need to know. And he uses the opportunity to slowly pull back the curtain on Jim Williams’ character, and we find a lot of haughty emptiness.
I’m not going to tell you the outcome of the fourth trial because, really, you should read this book yourself (if you’re one of the dozen people who hasn’t read it yet). Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil isn’t just for true crime or nonfiction enthusiasts. Fiction readers who love eccentric characters and great story telling should enjoy it, as well. I enthusiastically recommend it!
OK, I know some of you must have read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and I really want to know your thoughts. Did it inspire you to visit Savannah? Did you Google any of the characters or houses? Have you seen the movie?