“Genteel society ladies who compare notes on their husbands’ suicides. A hilariously foul-mouthed black drag queen. A voodoo priestess who works her roots in the graveyard at midnight. A morose inventor who owns a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill everyone in town. A prominent antiques dealer who hangs a Nazi flag from his window to disrupt the shooting of a movie. And a redneck gigolo whose conquests describe him as a ‘walking streak of sex’.
These are some of the real residents of Savannah, Georgia, a city whose eccentric mores are unerringly observed – and whose dirty linen is gleefully aired – in this utterly irresistible book. At once a true-crime murder story and a hugely entertaining and deliciously perverse travelogue, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is as bracing and intoxicating as half-a-dozen mint juleps.”
It has taken me a long time to get round to writing a review of this book that I read back in February, having been meaning to read it for a good few years, because I have just been unable to put into words how I really feel about it. I don’t think this is necessarily a negative, more a reflection of how this book has pushed me outside of my normal comfort zone in the types of book I usually choose. This book is very different to almost anything else you will read – a blurred line between fiction and non-fiction, between novel and travel writing, almost impossible to categorise.
This is based on real-life events that took place in the 1980s, although some of the ‘facts’ have been called into question and the author admits that the time line has been altered to make for a better narrative. However, it is a great example of the cliche that ‘facts are stranger than fiction’ and, if we weren’t made aware that the basis of the story was true, you would believe that it came entirely from the over-active imagination of the author.
This is a book of two distinct halves and, to me, felt slightly disjointed because of this. The first half is quite slow and a little heavy-going in places. It is made up entirely of a series of vignettes and character studies of Savannah, Georgia and its colourful residents, when the author is spending part of his time living there. Whilst these are interesting and beautiful in their own right, some of them bear little or no relevance when we get to the meat of the story in the second half of the book. This first half of the book reads mostly as a kind of travelogue – a love letter to this city by a man who was obviously and understandably very drawn to the place, its gothic atmosphere, its eccentric inhabitants and its unique customs and, in this regard, he does an amazing job of bringing the place and the people to vivid life. I defy anyone to read this book and not want to visit Savannah immediately, it is clearly a place like no other.
The second half of the book is totally different. This is where we get to the details of the true crime; the murder of a male prostitute by an eminent, but somewhat unconventional, Savannah socialite and the subsequent FOUR trials it took to decide his guilt or innocence one way or the other. This section of the book is totally riveting, more so because it is fact, not fiction, and it moves a lot quicker than the first half. The writer does a fine job of keeping us in suspense on the issue of the accused’s guilt and the book is an excellent read for any fans of true crime books. This is a cut above the usual salacious approach to true crime writing – this book has real elegance in the portrayal of the murder and the laboured, legal aftermath.
John Berendt is first and foremost a journalist and this really evident in his writing style in this book. He has a very keen eye for detail and a great talent for drawing an attractive and evocative picture of the setting and its inhabitants. I had a very clear image in my head of Savannah and the characters he is describing throughout my reading of the book. However, the downside of his style for me is that the book lacked the flow you would usually expect of a full-length novel and it felt a little more like a series of loosely connected reportage pieces, particularly the first half.
So, I am still undecided as to how I really feel about this book. Am I glad I read it? Yes, definitely, it is 100% worthy of the reader’s time. Did I absolutely love it? No, but I think that is maybe because it was so different to the style of writing I normally choose to read and it defies categorisation and pushed me out of my comfort zone. Would I recommend it to my friends? Yes, I would. I think it was an interesting book that anyone would get something from and any book that challenges our norms is to be encouraged. It does have some flaws, but that doesn’t detract from its value. And its cover is just the PERFECT representation of the book.
Now please excuse me, I’m off to book a flight to Savannah and a ticket to see Lady Chablis at Club One. If you want to know more about her, you’ll need to read the book. You can buy a copy of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil here.
About the Author
The son of two writers, John Berendt grew up in Syracuse, New York. He earned a B.A. in English from Harvard University, where he worked on the staff of The Harvard Lampoon. After graduating in 1961, he moved to New York City to pursue a career in publishing. Berendt has written for David Frost and Dick Cavett, was editor of New York magazine from 1977 to 1979, and wrote a monthly column for Esquire from 1982 to 1994.
Berendt first traveled to Savannah in the early 1980s. Over the ensuing eight years his visits became more frequent and extended, until he was spending more time in Savannah than in New York.
Part of the appeal, Berendt says, lay in the city’s penchant for morbid gossip.
Since the publication and unprecedented success of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Berendt has become a Savannah celebrity and was even presented with the key to the city.