17 December 2011

Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Title: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Author: John Berendt
Publisher/Year: Vintage Books / 1994
Date Finished: 15 December 2011
Source/Format: Bought / Print
Book #: 94

Buy | Borrow | Accept | Avoid

The Short and Sweet of It
While visiting Savannah for work, Berendt becomes intrigued by the town and its people, eventually deciding to spend half his time in this timeless, eccentric community. His involvement with the community includes meeting Jim Williams, a very rich, very haughty antique dealer, who is charged with the murder of a young man who lives with him. Berendt follows the trial, learning more about Savannah and its occupants along the way.

A Bit of a Ramble
For me, there is only one place to begin discussing this book: Savannah. You could argue our narrator the focus of the book as he enters, explores, and adapts to life in the elegant south or Jim Williams as he goes on trial for murder, but neither one holds a candle to the true star of this story, the eccentric, haunting, beautiful town of Savannah, Georgia. Never before have I read a book which so heavily focused on setting. Described as a true-crime narrative non-fiction, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is more a character-exploration of a city than a whodunit, a mystery, or a law-and-order-style book.

The characters, of which there are many, are quite the mix; from traditional old money to the nouveau riche to drag queens to voodoo priestesses to con artists, the composite offers a richly detailed look at the world of Savannah. There is even a man who attaches strings to flies in order to take them on walks. Oh, and he may or may not be planning to poison the entire community's water supply. These are complex, memorable, vibrant, intriguing people, made a bit more remarkable as they are real. Berendt maintains the personalities of his characters and the connections between them with ease, even as he introduces more to the story. Typically one to keep a "cast list" for those books with a multitude of characters, I never felt I had to do this with Midnight. The characters are too unique and Berendt too skilled a writer to require it.

I do feel a slight twinge if I think too hard about calling this book a true crime story. The main event - the trial of John Williams - feels entirely secondary. I am not quite sure exactly how much of the book actually had to do with the crime. Then again, that may be one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much, so who am I to haggle over terminology?


  1. I very much like books that focus on cities. This sounds like a wonderful way to get to know Savannah!

  2. I never knew this was non fiction! I like learning about other places though so I'll keep that in mind about this one.

  3. I have to tell you about my aversion to this book that I really shouldn't have. So the movie came out when I was in college. I went with a few friends of mine, people I didn't know very well and had never been out with before. I liked them, but riding in the car with them was horrible. The guy driving drove way too fast, hitting every bump on purpose, in one of those jeeps with the open windows and top. The other guy in the front seat was smoking cheap cigars, which I'd never smelled before. Between the two of them, I was completely nauseaus by the time we got to the theatre. I only wanted water, but the stupid people at the counter would only sell me bottled water, and the water they sold me had to have gone bad. It tasted metallic and tepid, but I drank it because I knew I would throw up otherwise. It was a really late showing, something like 11pm, and it's a really long movie. I spent the entire movie with my eyes half closed, trying not to be sick, drinking expired bottled water, and super sleepy (I've always needed my sleep). I warned them on the way home that I was going to throw up in the car if they didn't drive carefully, which helped a little, but only a little. So I remember that movie in a haze of awfulness, and I wasn't impressed with it anyway. Every time I think about this book, that aversion comes back to me.

  4. Jill - I haven't read too many books that focus on cities like this, but the ones I've read, I've definitely enjoyed!

    Jenny - I didn't know it was non-fic until I finished the story!!

    Amanda - That sounds terrible. I can definitely understand why the book would be one you would never pick up. That sort of conditioning is hard to break.

  5. I have heard so many good things about this book, but have never thought to read it. Your review makes it sound so atmospheric and involving, and I think that I really need to grab a copy and see if I enjoy it. Perhaps the library has a good copy on audio that I can grab. Off to look now! Great review, by the way!

  6. I absolutely adore this cover! I have it on my shelf but have yet to read it...

  7. I agree -- the star of this book is definitely the city of Savannah. I think the fact that Williams' trial takes so long to play out (and so many mistrials and whatnot... I can't remember exactly) that it starts to feel like background noise to the other crazy people in the city.

  8. I didn't technically "read" this book, but I listened to the unabridged audio a couple of times, which has to count toward something. I totally agree with you--Savannah is the real star of this book and Berendt's ability to evoke place is second to none. We stock this book in travel literature, not true crime, in my bookstore, if that makes you feel better.

  9. I read this ages ago and don't remember many details but I do remember thinking that the crime was almost beside the point!

  10. I enjoyed this book and the movie adaptation, though it's been a while. I forget her name -- the flamboyant drag queen? If I remember correctly, he/she played herself in the movie.

  11. I also immensely enjoyed this book. I agree that the trial was a side piece to the overall story. This book is the reason why Savannah is on my vacation list. Perfect review :)

    Hope you are doing well also

  12. From what I understand, Berendt embellished on the facts quite a bit, so it might not be entirely non-fiction.

    But it's still a fun read.

  13. This was one of my favorite reads in 2009. It made Savannah a must see for me.

  14. Man! I'm bummed by Jill's comment about the embellisment! Though the first time I read this I actually thought it was fiction (must have not been paying too much attention). I enjoyed it just as much the second time--the characters are so colorful! But like you said--above all Savannah. I so want to go there one day.

  15. I keep seeing this on lists of must-read non-fiction (though it sounds like there's some fiction thrown in as well). I need to get to it someday.

  16. I've seen this book around for years but now I want to read it! Great review.

  17. I felt the same way about the crime being secondary to the real story: Savannah and the characters. I suppose that is the only real "plot" the book has but it's really not the focus.

  18. I read this back in the day because I like nonfiction AND because the movie had my boy John Cusack.

  19. I love this book. I read it for the first time in high school and realized that nonfiction could be entertaining and thrilling, not just dry and boring. It changed my whole review of nonfiction. I was not a fan of the movie, but the book is such a fascinating look at both a city and some amazingly odd people.

    p.s. If you do see the movie, Lady Chablis plays herself and it is awesome!

  20. Yes I didn't find this true crime at all either, it just didn't work for me. The book itself I found a bit dry but overall interesting. LOVE Savannah though :)

  21. Heather - Atmospheric is definitely a good way to describe this book!

    Sheila - It is definitely one of the best covers of the year for me.

    Kim - Exactly! The trial felt secondary (which I didn't mind so much).

    Joan - I can see how this would work in travel lit for sure.

    Jenners - It's definitely just sort of there. Like a reason to write about the people and city.

    Stephanie - One of my favorite characters! So over the top.

    Jenny - It put Savannah on my vacation list too!

    Jill - I heard that too. Can't say I minded one bit. :)

    Stacy - I definitely want to go there one day; I wonder if I can really experience it as a tourist though.

    Trish - I have to admit that the embellishment doesn't really bother me. The accuracy of it doesn't mean as much to me as the atmosphere. :)

    Ana - Yeah, it seems it's a mix of fiction and non-fiction. But if you read it just as a story and not as a historical account, it's a good read.

    Vasilly - Thanks! I was finally motivated to read it after the 3 millionth positive review I saw. :)

    Red - Exactly! I think the trial was there just for an excuse to talk about the rest.

    Care - Heck yeah for John Cusack! He's awesome.

    Melissa - That's awesome that this book had such an impact on your reading. I can't really remember the movie; although I'm pretty sure I've at least seen bits and pieces.

    Amy - I wonder if it helped that I didn't know it was supposed to be nonfic...

  22. I just loved this story, and it is so much better than the film, of course. Everything about the quirky and eccentric characters were just a perfect match for me to read. I also had a chance to visit Savannah immediately after I finished the book and it was such a treat! They do have a walking tour that is geared towards the book, so you get to visit all the spots and places mentioned in the story. I highly recommend it!


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