17 December 2011
Book Review: 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?