172 of 180 people found the following review helpful
on August 19, 2002
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. I recommend this one to everyone -- southern fiction fans will delight in its eccentricities, true-crime lovers will enjoy the murder case, and armchair travelers will be booking trips to Savannah soon after the close of this book! Good job, John Berendt!
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2000
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.
71 of 79 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2001
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. You encounter men walking imaginary dogs, a voodoo priestess performing odd rituals in a graveyard, and a lawyer who takes off with the UGA mascot for the annual Florida v. Georgia college football game, in the midst of the biggest murder trial of his career.
The language of the book is effortless, almost as if it wrote itself, which makes sense when you consider the author came from a magazine background and started out writing a "fluff" features piece. Berendt thankfully avoids the excessive crime scene minutae and endless details of minor courtroom tactics that sometimes bogs down other true crime books, and keeps the reader focused on the sense of place, and the colorful characters, that are the true focus of his story. I enjoyed it thoroughly, read it very quickly and was sorry to put it down. A definite thumbs up.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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. Even the Bird Girl statue that graces the cover had to be moved to the museum for safekeeping.
I fell in love with Midnight when I first read it a number of years ago. My husband and I also listened to the unabridged book on a long drive to Savannah, which made it even more enjoyable. The movie version is an extremely poor and not very authentic adaptation of the book. But if you want to see shots of Savannah (especially the Mercer Mansion) or the real Lady Chablis (the drag queen who plays herself), it might be worth a look. Otherwise, stick to Berendt's wonderfully written book. Or at least, read the book first.
65 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on April 5, 2000
I must preface this review by saying I just returned from a week in Savannah...I did all the tourist things...even took "The Book" tour...
I've just re-read "The Book" for the third time and find it even more compelling, charming and utterly delightful than before.
As for its detractors, maybe this is a Southern thing, as we do celebrate our more colorful characters down here...my town's character doesn't collect insects, but he rides a bicycle, sits on Main Street all day, waves at everyone and knows their children...and yes, there are people who are one step ahead of their creditors, but I don't think they have tour buses stopping at their houses for lunch and the occasional hair cut. And no one I've ever known has taken a visitor to a cemetary, no matter how pretty is was, for chicken salad sandwiches and martinis.
I don't think the Married Women's Card Club could have survived for all these years if it were located say, in Chicago or St. Paul. It takes years of strict social standards to keep such rituals as when to serve water and when to "pass the linen" alive. The Olgelthorpe Club, Savannah Yacht Club (and its cousins) are still alive and well in the South, and have not yielded to outside pressures to become politically correct.
The charm and the underbelly of Savannah is real...Berendt captured it on paper and I saw it first hand.
I've never "fallen" for a city like I did for Savannah and, had it not been for "The Book," I would have never visited.
From what I read and what I learned on my trip, Jim Williams would have reveled in the spotlight of "The Book." I'm sure he's looking down (or up, depending on your point of view) and enjoying every snapshot the tourists take of Mercer House. In fact, I could have sworn I saw him looking out of the second story window....or it could have been the sun....
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on December 16, 1999
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt made for a wonderful read. The interesting twists and turns imbedded within almost every chapter make you want to keep turning the pages. Although Midnight reads like a novel, it is actually based on historically accurate details relating to Savannah, Georgia and it's society. This creates for an interesting genre, probably falling into the realm of historical nonfiction. The entire book is based primarily on the murder of a young man in Savannah, and his supposed killer, another gentleman prominent in Savannahian society. However, leading up to the actual murder, the author introduces a series of other Savannah natives, all of them quite interesting characters. From drag queens to lawyers, businessman to hustlers, you are able to meet individuals on both ends of the spectrum. I find it rather difficult to make a comparison between this book and another of its type, being as this is the first one of the sort that I have read. I was entirely captivated by this sort of literature and would love to get my hands of another similar piece. Berendt did a great job of writing from a technical standpoint. The setting centered the book in the heart of the South, Savannah, Georgia during the 1980's. Being born and raised in Iowa, I found the sharp contrast of lifestyles enthralling. The characters, well, WOW! As I said before, there was such a dynastic scale or personas that it created for a complete surprise every chapter when he would introduce somebody new. My favorite by leaps and bounds, however, had to be Chablis. The initial description we receive creates a vivid picture in my mind: "She was wearing a loose white cotton blouse, jeans, and white tennis sneakers. Her hair was short, and her skin was a smooth mild chocolate. Her eyes were large and expressive..." Then, a few pages later, we get another entirely different scene from the author, putting almost a disturbing picture in my mind. "Chablis suddenly burst into view, looking like raging fire in a skimpy sequined dress with jagged red, yellow, and orange flamelike fringes hanging from it. She wore huge hoop earrings and a wig of long black curls. The audience cheered as she strutted down the runway, working every nuance of the rhythm, shaking her behind like a pom-pom, whipping it from side to side." As you can see from looking at the characterization in the book, Berendt also uses great description. He uses the same intense description all throughout the book, describing everything from houses to parks to squares to people. The imagery was simply amazing. I don't believe that there was any strong symbolism or theme within this piece. The author just stuck right to the main plot of describing typical Savannah life, taking us on a journey, letting us witness people and events. I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book for everybody. Those younger than "teenager" probably would find this book a bit over their heads, as it does contain some rather adult context and material. But I still hold my stance that anybody ready to read a book that will seemingly involve them in the plot should open the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2003
Am I the last person in America to read John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"? Sometimes it feels like it. Berendt's recollection of his experiences as a northern writer in the southern city of Savannah seems to have been on every bestseller's list since Dickens first put pen to paper. And there is certainly an essence of Dickens' work about Berendt's masterpiece.
Like many of Dickens' novels, "Midnight's" appeal is born out of a fascinating collection of eccentrics and oddballs from both the underworld and the highest echelons of Savannah society. Berendt carefully and without overplaying his own role in this real-life murder mystery, let's the narrative flow out of the likes of Joe Odom, a cunning yet charming rogue; Lady Chablis, a cross-dressing, nightclub entertainer; and Minerva, a voodoo princess who wears the purple-tinted spectacles of her deceased lover in a vain attempt to inherit his mystical powers.
Berendt also exploits the architecture and infrastructure of the city of Savannah in the same way that Dickens used the sights and sounds of London to support his wealth of characters. Just as tour guides thread their way through the narrow streets around Southwick Cathedral and St. Barts hospital in London today, so too are native Savannahians leading the ever-expanding trail of "Midnight" enthusiasts around the squares and houses depicted in Berendt's tale.
"Midnight's" greatest appeal however, is the fact that all its odd characters, scenarios and events are, to a certain extent, true. The book's magnificence is founded in Berendt's wonderful ability to document the political, social, sexual, historic and specifically Savannahian tensions that run throughout this amazing tale.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
I've never been to Savannah before, but after reading this book, I really want to go there! "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is a fantastic book about the leaders of Savannah society in the early 1980's. It's actually a work of non-fiction (although it reads very much like a novel), and it chronicles the events in author John Berendt's life when he ventures out of his New York City home and discovers the town of Savannah, Georgia. Berendt was instantly smitten with the town, and he decided to live there on a part-time basis. The book is peppered with stories about the dozens of interesting characters Berendt encountered, including Jim Williams, a charismatic yet mysterious antique dealer; Danny Hansford; a troubled young man with a dangerous streak; and Chablis, an extremely outgoing transsexual entertainer. At first the book appears to be just a series of colorful anecdotes about Savannah and its quirky residents. However, eventually a murder is committed, which results in multiple trials and chaos that spans almost an entire decade.
I really enjoyed this book. Berendt is an excellent writer, and his vivid descriptions of Savannah and its inhabitants made me feel like I was right there with these people when all these crazy events transpired. It was hard to remember that "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is actually based on a true story: All these characters are real and this murder mystery actually happened less than 30 years ago. If you're looking for a captivating murder mystery that is brilliantly written and will keep you up reading until the wee hours of the morning, this is definitely the book for you!
32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on December 2, 1999
Nonfiction account of New York journalist who becomes part-time resident of Savannah's historic district to gather material for book. When one of the profiled eccentrics kills one of the others, the author becomes the historian for an interesting series of murder trials.
It takes some discipline to get through the first half of the book, as the chapters are disjointed and there is no plot. Once the murder occurs and becomes the central theme, the book becomes much more interesting. Ultimately, the book works well on many different levels, as a crime story, and as a commentary on our legal system, class differences, race, money, society, and even the spirit world.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2002
I thought John Berendt did a very good job of weaving a rich tapestry of eccentric characters and a fascinating setting, into an original true crime story. The book is based on an actual murder that set the precedent for OJ Simpson's defense, that is challenging the police and Medical Examiner's handling of the crime scene evidence.
Berendt spent eight years in Savannah, researching the book that originally started out as an article and it shows! In fact, maybe it shows too much...that is, what I gather, most of his critics have a problem with - INFO DUMP. Berendt does give reams of background material, but I never found it slow going. After reading this book you could picture Savannah and Berendt spun the same kinds of word pictures of each character. You'd swear you knew them all after reading this book.
Jim Williams, a wealthy antiques and collectibles dealer, was charged with the murder of his live-in assistant (and part time male prostitute) Danny Hansford and the trial set off a local firestorm.
As in the OJ case there were no witnesses - Williams charged self-defense, the prosecutor charged murder and the case went to trial...FOUR TIMES!
The original sticking point was the total lack of gun powder residue on Danny Hansford's hands, indicating that he never fired a gun and that Williams may have simply murdered him. Throughout the trials, Williams maintains his innocence as the prosecutor builds more and more circumstantial evidence that shows increasing animosity between Williams and Hansford, Hansford's wild demeanor and bad temper.
In one trial, a single juror, a woman who'd had to defend herself against a violent ex-husband, held out for acquittal, resulting in another hung jury. The fourth trial was moved to Augusta, Georgia - "the heart of the Bible Belt," where the homosexual overtones where not expected to play very well. In Berendt's story, Jim Williams begins telling him how Danny grabbed a gun in which the firing pin had been filed down and Williams reached into his desk for his own gun and fired, fearing the younger man's rage. But Williams lawyer comes in with a blockbuster piece of evidence - neither the police at the scene, nor the hospital staff had bagged Danny Hansford's hands at the scene. In fact, they'd been bagged with plastic bags, which would allow any gun powder residue to be washed away by the condensation. Williams was off the hook!
The book is a fascinating murder mystery, set in a fascinating town, with an array of exotic characters. There's Minerva, the voodoo princess, who helps Jim Williams commune with Danny dead spirit. Joe Odom is the house squatting, local entrepreneur. Lady Chablis (Frank) is a black transvestite who puts on burlesque shows at some of the local venues. There's even a man who walks the leash of a dog that died years ago, in order to keep receiving the $25/week for walking his late bosses pet.
This book is certainly worth reading if only to see the way our legal process actually works. Just as in the OJ case, money appears to triumph over justice in the end. But what else is new? When or where has it been otherwise? After spending nearly two years on the hardcover bestseller list, I guess most folks have read this...if you haven't, by all means check it out. It's a very well crafted read.