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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story Paperback – June 28, 1999
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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.
“Elegant and wicked…. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might be the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to book a bed and breakfast for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime." —The New York Times Book Review
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But enough about me. I love this book for its rich characters - Minerva, the Voodoo priestess, Chablis, the trans princess, Jim Odom, the charming lawyer-criminal throwing perpetual parties...only a few of the people of this book who now seem so real to me. The stories will linger with you like the moral ambiguity of Savannah, beautiful but fickle, indifferent but engaging. And I know, for my part, I will revisit it enthusiastically from time to time.
So I did.
I enjoyed the first half, but felt like the author's journalist background was coming out more than a cohesive story. It was more like a series of mini-biographies on various interesting people in Savannah. Like those long articles where a magazine writer meets with someone of interest over an extended period of time and talks about their interactions (there was a fascinating one with Fiona Appel in the past couple years...). I.e., it was very interesting and definitely put you in the mood of Savannah, but it wasn't exactly a story. There didn't appear to be a fluid tale coming out. It was more like "oh this person! Oh and that thing! oo, and then there was this one time... And oh yeah, she was interesting too!" And it was. Interesting. But not, as I say, a story. So the first half I'd give about 3 1/2 stars.
Except for the Jim Williams stuff which is the beginning, occasionally throughout, and most of the latter half of the book. And I'd give all that 5 stars. Berendt truly brings to life Jim Williams and his house (Mercer House), his experiences, his trade, his peoples, his parties, his personalities... I loved reading all of that. And Berendt did a fantastic job bringing to life the trialS related to Jim Williams.... without being boring or repetitive or, frankly, overly legalistic. It was just interesting and endearing and wonderful.
And what's it about? It's about Savannah. It's about the people in Savannah and the nature of Savannah and what makes Savannah, Savannah. This is apparently why the people in Savannah simply refer to this as "The Book." Because it did its job well. And it's also about a murder trial. And about big personalities. And about a journalist's discovery of a city, its people, and even himself.
And I recommend it. Just to everyone. It's a pleasure reading and a good one to have read.
FOUR AND A HALF stars.
Note: This book is true... mostly. As Berendt explains, not only have many of the names been changed, but the timeframe has also been changed, and perhaps small other details, to provide a story that's truer in "feel" than perhaps in explicit detail.