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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story Paperback – June 28, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has been heralded as a "lyrical work of nonfiction," and the book's extremely graceful prose depictions of some of Savannah, Georgia's most colorful eccentrics--remarkable characters who could have once prospered in a William Faulkner novel or Eudora Welty short story--were certainly a critical factor in its tremendous success. (One resident into whose orbit Berendt fell, the Lady Chablis, went on to become a minor celebrity in her own right.) But equally important was Berendt's depiction of Savannah socialite Jim Williams as he stands trial for the murder of Danny Hansford, a moody, violence-prone hustler--and sometime companion to Williams--characterized by locals as a "walking streak of sex." So feel free to call it a "true crime classic" without a trace of shame.

From Publishers Weekly

After discovering in the early 1980s that a super-saver fare to Savannah, Ga., cost the same as an entree in a nouvelle Manhattan restaurant, Esquire columnist Berendt spent the next eight years flitting between Savannah and New York City. The result is this collection of smart, sympathetic observations about his colorful Southern neighbors, including a jazz-playing real estate shark; a sexually adventurous art student; the Lady Chablis (' "What was your name before that?" I asked. "Frank," she said.' "); the gossipy Married Woman's Card Club; and an assortment of aging Southern belles. The book is also about the wealthy international antiques dealer Jim Williams, who played an active role in the historic city's restoration--and would also be tried four times for the 1981 shooting death of 21-year-old Danny Handsford, his high-energy, self-destructive house helper. The Williams trials--he died in 1990 of a heart attack at age 59--are lively matches between dueling attorneys fought with shifting evidence, and they serve as both theme and anchor to Berendt's illuminating and captivating travelogue.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; Reprint edition (June 28, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679751521
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679751526
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,385 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #10,041 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

172 of 180 people found the following review helpful By Dianna Setterfield on August 19, 2002
Format: Paperback
I'm embarrassed to admit that I had this book on my bookshelf for over three years before finally picking it up. Better late than never, right?! Now that I've finally read it, I must say how truly wonderful and exciting it is. The characters are so eccentric and bizarre, I had to keep reminding myself that these are REAL people. And John Berendt did an excellent job recreating this true-crime story into something so readable, humorous and delicious. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is fabulous...I couldn't get enough of it!
The main character in this novel is first and foremost, Savannah, Georgia. Such a glorious and mysterious backdrop for such an intriguing storyline -- and John Berendt fleshed it out so magnificantly, that Savannah breathes and lives as easily as those who live there. Mostly this book is about a rich antique dealer, Jim Williams, who was accused of murder. However, it is not an ordinary murder case -- all sorts of twists come out of the woodwork for this one, making this novel not only a true-crime story, but a mystery as well. Surrounding the murder aspect are the citizens of Savannah that the author comes in contact with: Luther Driggers, a former pesticide employee, who has a vial of poison potent enough to kill every one in the county; Chablis, the potty-mouthed drag queen and performer; Joe Odom, a modern vagrant who uses his home(s) as a tourist stop; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who uses roots, herbs, and graveyard dirt to weave her magic spells.
Excellent writing and amazing storytelling make Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and must-have book. One of the better novels I have read this year. I watched the movie afterwards, but the book, by far, tells the story better.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Renee Thorpe on June 7, 2000
Format: Paperback
Non-fiction stories of a unique southern city are nicely interwoven by Esquire writer Berendt, who was lucky enough to live there.
Basically, it is a true crime novel, but it is written with warmth, humor, and a remarkable eye for detail. Berendt takes the reader behind velvet curtains and antique walls into a society where pedigree is based as much on lineage, wealth, and power as on quirky southern traditions like knowing how to serve a fine platter of tomato sandwiches.
Forget Eastwood's oddly disappointing film; this book is quite marvelous. True crime lover? You will enjoy the book's steamy setting and colorful characters, an almost poetic break from the repetitive and merely competant writings by the likes of Ann Rule. Aristocracy - watcher? You will savour the odd little schemes and intrigues exposed without any hint of malice. The tragic saga of one man's extraordinary ascent into high society is presented amidst many delicious (and often hilarious) vignettes of all levels of Savannah's class structure. The author beautifully describes Savannah's magic, mystery, and achingly sad decay. Really, it is a fine tribute to this historic city of likeable conmen, sexy ne'er-do-wells, conniving politicians, and obsessive hostesses.
It's a real page-turner, a good companion if you are planning to visit Savannah.
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71 of 79 people found the following review helpful By J. Mullin on January 29, 2001
Format: Paperback
This is one of those books, like Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie, that for some reason captures the attention of the book-buying public, as the hardcover version was on the bestseller lists for years. Most readers have given you their opinions here at Amazon, 325 at last count, and so I figured I would put in my two cents as well. (Please note this review is resubmitted to correct technical errors in the previous version).
Berendt seems to be the perfect example of a writer being in the right place at the right time - he appears in Savannah as a featues writer to cover a lavish holiday party hosted by the extravagant antiques dealer Jim Williams, at the famed Mercer House, and is swept up in a murder and ensuing trial. There is no great mystery associated with the murder itself, everyone knows ... pulled the trigger, and yet Berendt manages to write a colorful, suspenseful page-turner that captivated the imagination of the public like few other non-fiction novels ever have. In Cold Blood by Capote comes to mind, but trust me this story is infinitely more entertaining.
Ultimately, the book works on many levels. It is an effective chronicle of a series of high-profile trials, an extended travelogue in which the colorful city of Savannah stands out as perhaps the star of the book, and a profile of Savannah's arostocracy, in which the reader understands Williams' sense of wanting to belong despite considerable obstacles. (Williams was not "old money", and therefore not really accepted in the city's highest circles, and as the trial revealed he was gay). Most of all, the book is a smorgasbord of colorful characters (none more compelling than the Lady Chablis) and bizarre situations that create a timeless sense of Savannah as a mysterious, alluring city.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia K. Robertson TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 7, 2004
Format: Paperback
What do a crooked party-animal lawyer, an African American drag queen, a wealthy homosexual antiques dealer, a piano player who knows 6000 songs, a Voodoo queen, and the Georgia bulldog mascot have in common? They are all characters in John Berendt's record setting bestseller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Never has a work of nonfiction been so informative and so much fun. Not only are the characters eccentric, but the entire city of Savannah fits that description as well. This beautiful, antebellum hothouse of the Old South is more a state of mind than a destination. Savannahian's revere their history, worship their ancestors, are very status and race conscious, and love to party.

Berendt spent eight years in Savannah and the first part of this book is more of a travelogue-introducing us to the history of Savannah and the quirky characters that will play a big part in the story later on. I especially liked Berendt's comparisons of Savannah to her sister city, Charleston.

The bulk of Midnight deals with a murder "mystery." Jim Williams (the antique dealer) lives in the stunning Mercer Mansion, and kills an employee in the house. But was it murder or self-defense? How the story unfolds is as fascinating as it is entertaining. Midnight is definitely something that could only happen in Savannah.

Midnight is a huge book, and it has had a major impact on this small city. At first, many Savannahian's were aghast at "The Book" and especially, the way it portrayed their eccentricities. But many residents came around as tourism skyrocketed (and increase of over 46%) as readers flocked to Savannah. The Midnight Phenomenon has been a boon to the economy, and there are now tours, lectures, slide shows and even a gift shop based on The Book.
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