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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

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A sublime and seductive reading experience. This portrait of a beguiling Southern city was a best-seller (though a flop as a movie). ~ Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt's narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt interweaves a first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

The story is peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman's Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the "soul of pampered self-absorption"; the uproarious black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.

386 pages, Paperback

First published January 13, 1994

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About the author

John Berendt

26 books868 followers
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. He 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 80's, and spent more and more time there over the next few years, until he was there more often than he was in New York.

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5 stars
77,045 (30%)
4 stars
101,216 (39%)
3 stars
59,097 (23%)
2 stars
13,118 (5%)
1 star
3,902 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 10,947 reviews
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,620 reviews4,956 followers
February 29, 2012
this book has a lot of fans. that makes some sense. magazines are certainly very popular, and this is magazine writing at its most polished. Berendt knows how to create an atmosphere. he knows how to describe things in a style that is careful, subtle, and enfused with a deadpan but rather mischievious irony. he can certainly describe the way a rich man's house looks - so well that you could then describe it to someone else as if you've been there. characters are sketched with an expert's hand - using a combination of physical details and the telltale mannerism or two - "objective" but rather sympathetic. the mystery at the heart of this novel is an absorbing one. and the book's central figure - the maybe-a-murderer - felt like he was an iteration of the film JFK's Clay Shaw, as played in an unusually fancy style by Tommy Lee Jones. which i liked, at first.

so why only 2 stars? well, it is polished magazine writing. it does not transcend, it does not delve deep. there is the slow but increasingly annoying realization that Berendt sees our anti-hero as a kind of social peer, which for some reason really bothered me. who knows, maybe i just automatically hate the rich & parasitic. Berendt writes about a whole gallery of characters, all characterized briefly but adroitly, and eventually i realized i was reading a classier version of a tourist-eye's view of Southern grotesques, a drive-by tour of weirdos. how aggravating! who knows, maybe i just automatically empathize with the weirdos and am annoyed by the normals. and then there is the sad fact of THE LACK OF BLACK PEOPLE WHO COME ACROSS AS REAL PEOPLE. yes, they are there (several) but for the most part they are part of the gallery of grotesquerie. this novel takes place in a part of the country that has a huge black community and i found the lack of this demographic - even ones who, i suppose, Berendt would consider non-grotesque - to be perplexing and troubling.
Profile Image for Annet.
570 reviews709 followers
July 12, 2019
Extraordinary story and characters, slow read, some parts for me were a bit hard to get through, that's why four stars and not five. A classic though. Loved it. Now I want to go to Savannah too....

Another early review of mine coming up... how times flies.
Oh my, I loved this book!
Profile Image for emma.
1,784 reviews42.9k followers
June 29, 2020
This is a book about the shooting of a young man in a rich guy’s fancy house, but the real crime is how boring this story is!!! Ayo!

I do not know what happened here.

I mean, this book has EVERYTHING:
- old rich people
- gossip about the aforementioned old rich people
- the history of the city of Savannah (famously interesting place, not even being sarcastic, and yes it is concerning to me that my earnest thoughts read as irony)
- drag queens
- alcoholism
- historical restorations
- feuds
- murder
- voodoo (especially of the middle-of-the-night-and-done-in-cemeteries variety)
- scandalous old women
- courtroom thriller storylines
- prison
- historical figures and who they had affairs with (cough, Judy Garland, cough)
- mentions of Moon River, a very good song that has the added benefit of reminding humanity about Audrey Hepburn

AND it’s under 400 pages. AND it had the longest uninterrupted stay on the New York Times bestseller list.

And somehow it is boring. Like truly a punishment to get through. Took me 5 times as long than I expected and that still felt like a long walk through a pond of Jell-o.

And not even a good Jell-o flavor.

Bottom line: WHY MUST I SUFFER.

------------

dedicating my life to figuring out how this book, which contains murder and voodoo and gossip and scandal and courtroom plotlines and drag queens and ornery old ladies and Savannah, could be so goddamn boring.

review to come / 2.5 stars

------------

thrilled to finally find a way to combine my two biggest passions: reading and gossip
Profile Image for Taylor.
281 reviews222 followers
November 6, 2014
Note, February 2014: I was just rereading this review, and FUNNY STORY, I moved to a small town. Not so much a big city person as I had originally thought...

Original review, circa 2007: I love this book to the point where I don't even really know what to say about it, because nothing I can say about it will be good enough to explain just how incredible this book really is.

After reading this book, I had to restrain myself from booking a flight to Savannah. It makes you want to be there, it makes you want to know the people, it makes you want to pick up and find a place just like it so you can move there. I am a city person through and through, but this book made me want to move to a small town. The characters are so remarkable, so interesting that you can't believe they are real people. This books makes you proud to be a human being as much as it makes you laugh at our ridiculousness.

A NOTE ABOUT THE MOVIE: don't see it before you read the book. (but if you have seen the movie and haven't read the book, please read the book because it's so much better.) while the movie essentially leaves no doubt about the actual account of the murder that it focuses around, the book does not. and the book is also not nearly as centered around Jim Williams as the movie is.
February 12, 2022
And as “the Angels Sing’ justice is finally served !!!

The setting is Savannah, a hauntingly beautiful city, and one of the oldest in the state of Georgia, so how perfect for a gripping crime novel told under a veil of Spanish moss and in shaded squares. Only ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ is a retelling of a true crime story whilst still possessing all the ingredients and witty dialogue of a fictional story. The characters are deeply drawn and somewhat eccentric, the setting is idyllic, and the plot would draw the envy of fictional writers.

Yet on that day in May 1981 a different veil or cloak hung over Savannah when the shots from the Mercer mansion signalled the death of Billy Hanson. Self-defence or murder?. Jim Williams spent the best part of a decade trying to defend his story of self-defence, whilst the justice system was equally keen to find him guilty. A man of stature and wealth in the community drawing many friends and enemies alike. A first-person account as they learn,

“Rule number one: Always stick around for one more drink. That's when things happen. That's when you find out everything you want to know.”

But as “the Angels Sing” in the final chapters, justice is finally served, in a melodious ending for one !!!

Review and Comments

I found the opening chapters a bit slow and dry. So to help re-imagine the scene, the ambiance and backdrop of this famous story I researched pictures of Savannah and the actual building where Hanson was found dead which helped provide the enchanting theatre at the heart of this story. The plot itself is excellent and chilling more so because it is based on true events, trials and testimonies. Apart from this it was the dizzying array of characters that made the book for me, from the hilarious drag queen, to the voodoo woman in the cemetery at midnight, to the piano playing guests. As for Savannah itself

“Savannah was invariably gracious to strangers, but it was immune to their charms. It wanted nothing so much as to be left alone”

A great story, with a remarkable set of characters all of whom are apparently real (apart from a few name changes), however it was the flow, writing style and staid dialogue that prevented me from giving this 5 stars and held me back from engaging with this story fully. As a fictional reader it is worth reading but as a fictional lover I wanted to connect more with the story.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,855 reviews1,886 followers
September 27, 2020
BkC7)Delicious, shimmering prose. Wonderful story. Savannah really should give Mr. Berendt a pension.

Well now, I have to dim my searchlight to a streetlight. Still think it's good but now, well, now I can't see past the one-hit-wonderness to the glories I once took for granted.

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty,early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt's sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman's Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the "soul of pampered self-absorption"; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a sublime and seductive reading experience. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written, this enormously engaging portrait of a most beguiling Southern city has become a modern classic.

My Review: Bored Manhattanite journalist realizes, back in the 1980s, that lunch at a trendy restaurant costs more than air fare to a sexy Southern retreat (those were the days!) and the resulting experience was more lasting. So John Berendt becomes a commuter to Savannah, Georgia, which is the American Bath for sheer physical prettiness, though quite a lot hotter.

Being a good journalist, he meets everyone worth meeting, and being a gay man, meets the entire A list of gay life in this small city in record time. Then he stumbles into an amazing story of murder and skulduggery among the social elite as the elite intersects with gay and gay-for-pay culture.

Along the way he talks to every single interesting person in Savannah and builds a word-picture of its typically Southern hierarchical social scene. As The Lady Chablis, an African-American drag queen made briefly famous by this book, would say, "Flawless!"

Not exactly flawless, but wonderful. Southern characters abound, including the old root woman who introduces Yankee John to the world of the haints and spirits and loa that Southerners, even the Babdiss ones, are aware exists, even when they scream and rail about it as evil, wrong, bad...well, they do that about sex too, and with as much effect.

Cemetery dirt is a powerful ingredient in the sympathetic magic the old root women practice. Where it comes from, that is whose grave it was, matters, as do many other factors, and Yankee John reports with wide-eyed fascination on the entire experience of getting involved in the magical universe to help an accused murderer.

The end of the story is, very sadly, the end of a single book career. The City of Falling Angels notwithstanding, this is Mr. B's one book. Fortunately, it's a very good one. Unfortunately, it's the only one. And so I ding a half-star off for literary incomplete pass. But it's a helluva read!
Profile Image for Libby.
569 reviews160 followers
October 29, 2021
3.5 rounded up - I’ve been wanting to read this book for ages as I’ve been beguiled by the book cover ever since it was published in 1994. A selection chosen for October by the ‘On the Southern Literary Trail,’ I finally buckled down to see what the hullabaloo was all about as this novel was on the New York Times bestseller list for 216 weeks. It includes a murder mystery but at its heart seems as much about Savannah and a colorful cast of characters as it does about a murder.

It was evident from the start that wealth played the biggest role in getting on the roster of prominent people in Savannah. Jim Williams decorated Mercer House with antiques, a commodity that performed the double function of bringing him wealth and then serving as a demonstration of it to the community. His annual Christmas party was a hot ticket event; his guest list was compiled with great care as to the who’s in and who’s out invitees. Buying, restoring, and selling houses was also Williams’s stock in trade. Williams was not born in Savannah but in the small Georgia town of Gorden. His rise to prominence broke through the exclusivity of Savannah’s higher echelons.

Another colorful character is Joe Odum, one of the author’s neighbors in Savannah. Joe is a fly-by-night lawyer who plays the piano incessantly and has troops of people wandering in and out of his house. When his funds are insufficient to pay his electric bill, he hooks onto the neighbor's electricity. His financial dealings are a mess. When kicked out of one residence, he takes up living in a home where the owners are out of the country for six months. His girlfriend, Mandy Nichols, was once crowned BBW, Miss Big Beautiful Woman in Las Vegas. Mandy is counting on becoming the next Mrs. Joe Odum.

Another character who could be the subject of a book on her own is Lady Chablis. An African American transgender nightclub star, Berendt first met her as he was parking his $800 1973 Pontiac Grand Prix, a car that Joe Odum had helped him find. Chablis had just come out of Dr. Myra Bishop’s office, where she received hormone shots. She immediately annexes Berendt as her chauffeur.

“How come a white boy like you is drivin’ a old, broken-down, jiveass bruthuh’s heap like this?”

Chablis’s language and mannerisms are hilarious, often lewd. The funniest moment of the entire book occurs toward the end when Chablis tries to attach herself to Berendt as his date to the black debutante ball. The black debutante ball is a very upstanding event, one that’s significant for the young ladies who are invited to attend. Berendt refuses Chablis as his date, but she manages to make an entrance there anyway. What follows is highly entertaining.

When Clint Eastwood directed the film version, Chablis plays herself in the movie.

I was mildly disappointed that the murder didn’t occur until page 169. I’m not usually a blood-thirsty reader but parts of ‘Midnight’ read like the gossip columns and I got a bit bored with who’s who. Things picked up after that but classism continues to be a thread throughout. I enjoyed Chablis and even Joe Odum thumbing their noses at tradition and high society.

One theme that Jim Williams puts into play is the power of magical thinking. He does this through a game he invented called Psycho Dice. As he rolls the dice, Williams sends out strong vibrations for the numbers he calls, thinking that doing so improves his odds. He cools down his young, irascible chauffeur, Danny Hansford by sending out powerful thoughts. He engages the services of voodoo practitioner Minerva, who scrapes up graveyard dirt and touts the recollection of good thoughts thirty minutes before midnight and the utterance of curses for the thirty minutes after midnight as powerful prognosticators. The ending gives persuasive testimony to Minerva’s abilities and makes this a perfect story for Halloween.
Profile Image for VictoriaNickers.
163 reviews47 followers
May 3, 2017
One of the best 'true crime' book I have ever read. Every inch of the story is fascinating. It reads like a novel. I actually had to keep reminding myself that it was, in fact, a true crime book. From the very first chapter I felt drawn in. I immediately wanted to go to Savannah and see it for myself.

So often in true crime books the characters are a little flat. Berendt was really able to make them come to life. His writing made the whole city come to life. His ability to infiltrate the seemly exclusive Savannah society and do such an awesome character study was amazing.

The personalities in the book are so bizarre and fantastic. It is almost hard to believe that they all live in a small city together. It had almost the same Southern society vibe to it as Time to Kill. The focus was not so much on the crime but rather the mesh of characters are interwoven into the plot (if I can call it that).

In to my re-read pile it goes!
Just found out that it's a movie with Kevin Spacey. Wonder if it's on Netflix?
Profile Image for Blaine.
712 reviews573 followers
September 14, 2021
”Now, you know how dead time works. Dead time lasts for one hour—from half an hour before midnight to half an hour after midnight. The half hour before midnight is for doin’ good. The half hour after midnight is for doin’ evil.”
“Right,” said Williams.
“Seems like we need a little of both tonight,” said Minerva, “so we best be on our way.”

For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has always been a difficult book to describe. On one level, it’s a nonfiction crime story about a murder trial (well, four of them) in Savannah, Georgia. In the early morning of May 2, 1981, Jim Williams, a wealthy, self-made antiques dealer, shot and killed Danny Hansford, his young, hot-tempered handyman/assistant. Was it murder or self-defense? Though the book runs through the end of the trials and the appeals, you’ll never really, truly know for sure whether justice was done in the case.

But what makes Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil so fascinating and memorable is that, even though it’s centered around this shooting and the legal drama that followed, it’s not really about those things at all. The shooting doesn’t even happen until the midpoint of the book. Instead, the book is about Savannah in the 1980s, and the unbelievably, wonderfully eccentric group of people there. Joe Odom, the piano playing con man affectionately known as the sentimental gentleman. Emmy Kelly, the Lady of 6000 Songs. The Married Woman’s Card Club, made up of exactly 16 women, no more no less. Defense attorney Sonny Seiler, owner of the University of Georgia’s bulldog mascots for the last 30 years. Minerva, the voodoo priestess Jim Williams hires to fix his trials. And perhaps the most famous real-life character of them all, The Lady Chablis, aka the Grand Empress of Savannah.

I was concerned that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might be a cringey re-read all these years later, with so much of the book being about a shooting by a gay man and about a black transgender woman. But I think the story held up well. The author holds no judgment of either character’s gender or sexuality. And while the author uses The Lady Chablis’s own moniker of “drag queen” instead of the word “transgender,” the story showed way-ahead-of-its-time sensitivity and support toward the issue. The Lady Chablis is larger than life, and outrageously over the top (never more so than when she crashes the black debutante ball), but she’s never anything other than a Lady.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a unique reading experience. It only works because it’s nonfiction, and the goings on in beautiful, insular Savannah so funny—if these unbelievable characters were fictional, everyone would have rejected the story as too absurd. Highly recommended, and a must-read if you never have.
Profile Image for Brian.
672 reviews315 followers
May 19, 2019
I purchased this book while in Savannah for the first time. I had been promised that the text would capture the spirit of this reclusive and beautiful city. And it did, I have no complaints there. Mr. Brendt weaves this character driven travelogue into the true story of a sensational murder trial that dominated Savannah for nearly a decade. That is a nice device as it allows the author to "character hop" so to speak, while being able to bring the text back to a central incident, the murder trial.
This book is an excellent read if you are interested in the city of Savannah, or are fascinated by the small eccentricities that make every town unique. Mr. Brendt captures both nicely. Although his writing is not spectacular, it is rather mundane and average, his fondness for Savannah and its denizens comes across the page and envelops the reader. You find yourself liking these people despite their oddities, and in some cases, criminal behavior.
My only gripe is that the book has substantial portions that are made up, and chronologically smashed together. This by the author's own admission. I wish he had not done that, as it detracts from the legitimacy of the story, and gives readers the out of thinking that some of the more outrageous aspects of the text were made up. Whether they were or not, I do not know.
The text starts out slow, but builds nicely, and I was never bored. When Mr. Brendt introduces the characters of Joe Odum, and later on, Chablis the text gets a humorous lift. Read the book, and then visit Savannah, you'll see what I mean.
Profile Image for Dez the Bookworm.
167 reviews42 followers
December 2, 2022
No matter the rating - it’s worth the read. If you remind yourself this is nonfiction, you’ll enjoy the telling of the events. People who forget it’s NOT fiction will likely rate it lower for not being more like other works of fiction.
Profile Image for Leo.
4,177 reviews370 followers
December 23, 2021
I got rather surprised when I read reviews after finishing this and realized it was a non fiction. Definitely did not feel like that, was a lot more like a novel. But that didn't mean that it wasn't good. It was very good, and I quite liked getting that surprised for some reason.
Profile Image for Adam.
39 reviews16 followers
December 4, 2013
This was a decent book. There was a lot of mood, of which I'm a big fan. The characters all had the potential to be very interesting, but unfortuately, they weren't developed. That's not to say you don't spend a lot of time with them, or find out anything about them, it's just that you don't really give a damn.

The book is written by a magazine journalist who ends up living on and off in Savanah, GA for eight years to investigate and chronicle a murder and it's trials. This book is more or less one long magazine article, detailng the events, and lives, but never really giving you sympathy for any of the characters.

It does a fine job of keeping the mystery of whether Jim Williams really did the deed a secret, but in comparison to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (which I'm reading currently) this is not worth the effort.
Profile Image for Johann (jobis89).
615 reviews4,242 followers
December 11, 2020
“The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.”

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the “bestselling true crime classic” that I personally wouldn’t specifically categorise as true crime, but as more of an entertaining examination of a community and all its eccentric characters. With a murder thrown in for good measure.

It’s a first-person account of life in an isolated remnant of the Old South - specifically Savannah, Georgia - where nothing really changes. Until one day shots ring out in one of Savannah’s grandest mansions. The book has a real sense of place, as Berendt so beautifully describes this city. I’ve since added it to the bucket list of places that I must visit before I die!

The characters that live here are absolutely OFF THE CHARTS. They’re all so eccentric and unique, it truly feels as though you are reading about fictional people. There’s a voodoo priestess, a recluse who owns a bottle of poison so lethal it could kill everyone in town, a HILARIOUS Black drag queen, a redneck escort... I could go on. Some of the stories had me shrieking with laughter as I thought “but this can’t be real!!” And yet it is - for the most part. Similar to the other “true crime classic”, In Cold Blood, some parts are filled-in by the narrator in order to complete the narrative. But it’s so fuckin’ entertaining and funny I don’t even care how much of it is actually true!

I would say don’t pick up this expecting your usual true crime novel. Sure, there’s a murder and a court case etc, but for the most part that was the secondary to the story of this city and it’s crazy inhabitants. My only minor quibble is that some parts moved a little slow, but on the whole I had a BLAST reading this! I’d definitely recommend. 4 stars.
Profile Image for ALLEN.
553 reviews113 followers
October 17, 2021
One advantage of bringing fresh eyes to an old town like Savannah, Georgia, is that the newcomer can cross social, racial, religious and economic lines with relative ease. Reporter John Berendt made the most of it in this bestseller. Midnight is a penetrating look at Coastal South culture that is zestily written and a hell of a lot of fun to read.

While I enjoyed the ensuing movie very much, I like the book even more because it can take more time doing its job -- basically following a very bemused New York reporter (Berendt) around in search of answers to a controversial murder, as he crosses paths with Uga the "Damn Good Dog," meets Luther the "fly man," gets special permission to visit the Married Women's Card Club, learns about the hustler who was "the good time not yet had by all," dabbles in hoodoo, and of course makes the acquaintance of Lady Chablis, who had to tape her "Thing" down before she appeared in public. And for all the eccentricity, you'll actually learn a lot about Savannah!

The book under review, which is not to be confused with AFTER MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL by a different author, is worth seeking out specifically. Used copies are plentiful, too, even in hardcover. I, for one, consider this MIDNIGHT among the very best of investigative crime NF with a "creative non-fiction" flair, and would rank it at or near such works as IN COLD BLOOD or John Cullen's COLUMBINE. Go for it!
Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,114 reviews1,976 followers
October 26, 2015
I found this one a struggle. Several times I stopped and looked the title up again on Goodreads to make sure it really is non fiction. Surely all those weird characters could not really have existed in one place. Surely there must have been a huge amount of artistic licence going on. The court cases themselves rang true but ended up not being a major part of the book. Two stars because the author writes well. My struggle to read it was based purely on disbelief and not at all on the quality of the book. Disappointing.
Profile Image for Lena.
Author 1 book335 followers
July 8, 2008
There was a lot of hype around this book a few years back, but in this case I think it is actually deserved. For one, Berendt is a skilled writer who understands how to tease a compelling story out of the material he’s working with. And, oh, what material! The true-crime mystery at the center of the book—whether the social-climbing, closeted gay antiques dealer shot his lover in cold blood or self-defense—is interesting enough, but Berendt decorates that story with outrageous character portraits of Savannah’s very oddball residents. Whether he’s discussing the quirky, old-South rituals of the Married Women’s Card Club or the disturbed local genius who may or may not be plotting to poison the town’s water supply, Berendt kept me so engaged I relished every moment.

Be wary of the movie version of Midnight, though. Good actors, bad adaptation. If you like the book, however, you may want to watch it just to see the notorious drag queen play herself. Sometimes, truth really is better than fiction.
Profile Image for Jonathan Ashleigh.
Author 1 book117 followers
March 22, 2017
The writing was great, the story was led into in an interesting way, but the trial was trivial and so were many characters that were introduced in the first half of the book. But, I liked reading about them anyway and, while the book came together well in the end, the whole thing wasn’t cohesive. That said, I feel like I should have more good things to say about a book I enjoyed reading so much.

Profile Image for Brett C.
769 reviews156 followers
July 27, 2022
I went back and forth during this entire read. The back was due to the story's direction: it was how the progression that sometimes felt tangential with Southern nuances and regional references. But that was the forth for me as well: Southern and gothic Southern history and social life, literature and movie allusions (Gone With The Wind), cultural inferences (Uga the bulldog mascot of University of Georgia), real-life aspects (US Army and current Hunter Army Airfield) and specifics to the Savannah lifestyle (socialites, St. Patrick's Day, voodoo).

Overall this was a pretty good book that was uniquely written. It was a mix of mystery, crime drama, journalist style, and contemporary fiction. I have not seen the 1997 Clint Eastwood film starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack so i can't compare the two. But I would recommend it for a good read. Thanks!
Profile Image for Paul Haspel.
530 reviews54 followers
July 10, 2022
Midway through the first hour of the first day of my first visit to Savannah, back in the fall of 1996, I came to understand that in Savannah, this book is *The* Book. One does not need to mention author John Berendt, or give the book’s title. All one has to do is say, “She comes across really well in The Book,” or, “He doesn’t look very good in The Book,” or, “There’s too much [or not enough] about them in The Book.” It is simply “The Book,” like the Bible in Jerusalem.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil unfolds a fascinating, compelling tale of author John Berendt’s time in Savannah. Berendt, an Esquire magazine columnist and former editor of New York magazine, says that he got into the habit of traveling to Savannah, and found himself in the midst of a bizarre story that involved larger-than-life characters, wild sexual escapades, and murder.

Having learned the three rules of Savannah life – (1) “Always stick around for one more drink”, (2) “Never go south of Gaston Street” (for a true Savannahian, that’s “North Jacksonville”), and (3) “Observe the high holidays – Saint Patrick’s Day and the day of the Georgia-Florida football game” (pp. 50-51) – Berendt quickly acquaints himself with an array of colorful individuals. One character that has made a strong impression on many readers is The Lady Chablis, a fearlessly self-expressive transgender woman of whom Berendt says that “she was definitely a she, not a he. I felt no tendency to stumble self-consciously over pronouns in her case” (p. 100).

In the main, however, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the story of Jim Williams, a man who came to Savannah from a small Georgia town and achieved such success and wealth as an antiques dealer that he could install himself in the Mercer House, one of Savannah’s most prestigious old homes, and live like an antebellum Southern aristocrat. Many things made Jim Williams an outsider – his small-town origins and his sexual orientation among them. But his parties were the toast of Savannah’s high society, and even those who hated him hoped for an invitation.

All of that changed when Williams shot and killed 21-year-old Danny Hansford, a hot-tempered young man who was described by both men and women as “a walking streak of sex.” Hansford restored furniture for Williams part-time, was a sex worker much of the rest of the time, and constantly used drugs and alcohol in a manner that exacerbated a decidedly nasty violent streak. Everyone involved in the case, including Jim Williams himself, agreed that Williams had shot Hansford inside Mercer House. The question was whether the shooting was murder or justifiable self-defense.

The case quickly became a cause célèbre throughout Savannah – a case in which sex, violence, socioeconomic class, and money intersected. People followed the case with the same degree of rapt fascination that ordinarily would be reserved for the Georgia-Florida football game, as when a guest at one of Williams’s parties – Williams still gave the parties, whenever he was out of jail long enough to be able to do so – opined that “Jim has good lawyers. That’s why I think he’ll get off. That, and because of his standing in the community” (p. 200).

As one murder trial gave way to another, with twists and turns that one would not have thought possible outside of a Perry Mason episode, Williams himself maintained, with the enigmatic, serene equanimity that seems to have outraged his enemies, that “One way or another…I will get out. You can rely on that….My conviction will be reversed. You’ll see” (p. 300). Williams’s tactics ranged from the tried-and-true – hiring top lawyers with a reputation for securing acquittals, even in the most difficult murder cases – to measures that will never be found on the books in any law-school curriculum.

The title chapter, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” shows Williams seeking out the help of a vodun priestess named Minerva. As Berendt tells it, he joins Williams and Minerva on a midnight visit to the grave of Danny Hansford, where Minerva tries to work rituals that will lessen the dead man’s wrath. Even dead, Minerva says, “That boy is still workin’ hard against you” (p. 251), trying from beyond the grave to ensure that Williams will come across as a cold-blooded murderer, and therefore will go to prison.

That story, compelling as it is, captures some of the things that made me wonder about this book. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is often described as a “nonfiction novel”; and as with other works of this genre, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, one is left wondering where the borderlands between nonfiction and novel lie. When is Berendt describing what he saw, and when is he using the techniques of fiction to reconstruct? Interesting to wonder about.

Whatever the case, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the kind of book that becomes a phenomenon. When my wife and I were in Savannah in 1996, we found it fun to go to the club where Emma Kelly, “The Lady of Six Thousand Songs,” played the piano. During Ms. Kelly’s breaks, visitors queued up, waiting patiently for Ms. Kelly to sign their copies of Midnight, no doubt on some page of Chapter 6 wherein Ms. Kelly’s story is told.

Today, I do not know whether Midnight tours of Savannah are as popular as they were in the 1990’s. Perhaps those tours still go on, along with the ghost-story tours for which hearses fitted with rooftop rows of seats make their way along Bay Street. Whatever the case, I do believe that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil will be “The Book” in Savannah for many years to come. Savannah is truly the main character of Midnight; and as John Berendt depicts her, she is an intriguing and beguiling Southern belle indeed.
Profile Image for Tea Jovanović.
Author 411 books656 followers
November 28, 2016
Ova knjiga je jedan od meni najdražih prevoda, i žao mi je što film nije pomogao knjizi... Naime, knjiga obiluje živopisnim likovima, a Klint Istvud je u svom filmu samo načeo te likove, a nijednog nije u potpunosti prikazao... Ono što je posebno interesantno u vezi s ovom knjigom jeste to da je ona potpuno promenila život učmale Savane u Džordžiji... Gradić koji ne voli promene, koji ne voli savremene tekovine, odjednom se našao pod najezdom turista koji su se tu sjatili posle čitanja ove knjige... Bila je veliki hit krajem prošlog veka... :)
Profile Image for Amanda.
282 reviews315 followers
September 1, 2013
Murder, gullah, drag queens (these are a few of my favorite things . . .) There's probably not much I can say about this book that hasn't already been said, but that won't stop me. I saw the movie when it first came out and loved it, but just never got around to reading the book. I thought that the entire book would be about the murder trial of Jim Williams, the prominent Savannah antiques dealer accused of murdering Danny Hansford (with whom it was rumored he was having a sexual relationship). While a generous portion of the book is dedicated to the details of Williams's four trials, the book is much more than that. This is a collection of stories about the people and history of Savannah--some of it true, some of it embellished, and some of it flat-out fabricated. The characters are eccentric, but likable (particularly The Lady Chablis--the foul mouthed drag queen who has labeled herself "The Grand Empress of Savannah;" she's by far my favorite character, followed by Minerva, the fascinating practitioner of voodoo). And, while I knew he was probably a scoundrel, I also liked Jim Williams, who insisted on continuing to live in Savannah because "it pisses off all the right people."

There was a lot of discussion at book club as to whether this should be classified as fiction or non-fiction. Here's my verdict: who cares? If the story is entertaining and well told, whether or not it's 100% factual shouldn't make a whit of difference to anyone who is looking to be entertained.

It should also be said that the cover art for the book is perfect. The bird girl of Bonaventure Cemetery stands there like Savannah itself, prim and old-fashioned, holding out both good and evil--head cocked in curiosity to see from which bowl her citizens will take.

Cross posted at This Insignificant Cinder
Profile Image for Montzalee Wittmann.
4,454 reviews2,319 followers
April 4, 2017
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt is a weird story about even weirder people! I would be gone from that town soooo fast. What creepy people! With the strange people you knew the murder mystery would be just as creepy, but not good. Easy to figure out that Jim and Danny were lovers right away. Why hide it in this town? You have a man that only puts make up on one eye, a man who walks an invisible dog, a man that hordes enough poison so he can at sometime kill everyone, and a transvestite dating a man. These are the sane people! I wasn't impressed with the writing, the plot, or the mystery. His weird characters were weird but that was it. Not my kind of book.
Profile Image for Diane in Australia.
668 reviews786 followers
February 3, 2021
Due to all the hype, I went out of my way to get this book. I needn't have bothered. It didn't impress me. The author admits he mixes fact with fictional embellishments, which is sometimes 'okay', and sometimes not. In this instance, it was more of a 'not'.

If you love Savannah, or Georgia in general, you'd probably enjoy this book as he totally nails the ambience of that city, and its locals. If you're looking for a riveting true crime book, this one may not be very enthralling.

3 Stars = It was 'okay'.
Profile Image for Maxwell.
1,089 reviews7,948 followers
August 26, 2015
The perfect mix of character study and courtroom drama, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil paints a fascinating picture of Savannah, Georgia. It's a moody, atmospheric novel that draws you in with its exquisite descriptions and eccentric cast. There are aristocratic snobs and drag queens, punk rock teens and possibly murderous millionaires. It all sounds a bit too good to be true--based on a series of real events from the 1980's-- and maybe it is. But nonetheless, it's wildly entertaining and compulsively readable. I'd recommend the audiobook because there are a few slow moments that I might not have been motivated to read had I been reading it in physical form. Fans of the podcast Serial might enjoy this one for it's court aspect, with the added bonus of some zany and memorable characters. 4 stars
Profile Image for Jennie Damron.
435 reviews57 followers
August 19, 2019
So this has been on my TBR pile for many years. I am glad I read it and enjoyed the read, but not like I thought I would. Parts of the book seemed unnecessary and disrupted the flow of the story. The writing was well done and I like that the author lived and mingled with the people of Savannah before, during and after the murder trial. I think that gave the book a deeper resonance and flavor than if he had just researched the trial and the people involved. This was unlike any true crime book I have ever read. In some cases it didn't even feel like a crime book, but almost like a good novel. I will say that Savannah is now a place I would like to visit based on the way he wrote about it. You can tell he loved the city. It definitely is worth the read and I'm glad I finally read it.
Profile Image for Michelle.
1,332 reviews106 followers
October 26, 2021
Popsugar Challenge 2021 - A book with an oxymoron in the title

This is a non fiction true crime story on the shooting of Danny Hansford by his employer and the subsequent four trials. I hadnt heard of this before so I went in without any prior knowledge at all.

Written in narrative style it's easy to forget that this is non fiction, it very much feels like a slice of life fictional novel.

The cast of characters are electric. A Drag Queen, a Witch, an Antiques Dealer, a piano playing lawyer. There's an abundance of alcohol, gossip and ambition in a town with an unwillingness to change.

You need to prepare yourself for a slow start in this one. Split into two sections, part one is pre murder, you're meeting the residents one by one, understanding how they fit both individually and as a collective township. Part two is the murder, the trials, the corruption, the aftermath. It takes a while to get going but chapter by chapter I felt myself getting immersed in the story.

It's hard to reconcile in my head that this is a true story as it feels like a cast from a sitcom but I guess there is something about that saying that the truth is always stranger than fiction and this is stranger than fiction indeed!

Well researched and written in a way I felt I was living in Mercer House, playing the piano with Joe and dragging it with Chablis, I enjoyed my time in these pages.
Profile Image for Karen.
Author 3 books3 followers
November 2, 2007
Although I enjoyed it, I think this book could have been much better. The first half is largely a series of character studies, and the second half is essentially a true-life crime novel. Unfortunately I grew dangerously bored with the first half, and as the mystery unfolds, I grew annoyed that many of the characters introduced in the first half really have little play or impact on the rest of the book. The murder mystery itself is an interesting story but is very anticlimactic. While the book is nonfiction, and in that sense rather remarkable that the author experienced these people and events, I perhaps would have liked the author to instead written a much more compelling fictional work inspired by Savannah and the circumstances included in the book.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,844 reviews420 followers
March 18, 2020
'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' is actually non-fiction, but the book reads a little like a fictional 'Miss Marple' Agatha Christie mystery. However, 'Midnight...' has quite a dollop of thick Southern postbellum syrup spread on its infamous mix of greens-and-purple cabbage garden of a story, with a twist of Red Queen Wonderland tomatoes.

The book's real-life Savannah, Georgia characters and 'plot' are handled by the author John Berendt with an amused grin and a tolerance usually only moms have for their wayward delinquent kids. The maybe murder is well known, but everything happened decades ago. Perhaps you have never heard of the story, so, I recommend looking up nothing before reading this book.

Berendt walked into the murder story by accident. It appears his original plan may have been to write this book as a travelogue. But after meeting several rich idiosyncratic people who had thrived so well in Savannah they had become important philanthropic boosters in restoring Savannah's rotting old houses, one of them, a millionaire, self-made, with an 'old-South' demeanor and a seller of antiques, committed a crime Savannah couldn't forgive.

Almost all of the characters Berendt profiles in 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' habitually color outside the lines of propriety way beyond normal, which shocks the genuine old proper Savannah families, especially the ladies. However Savannah does not often condemn people for their sins, only for making them public. As long as the polite social forms are meticulously followed, whatever goes on behind closed doors is perfectly ok. But some nouveau rich are leaving their front doors open a crack enough for a peek inside. The horror!

When 'Midnight...' was first published, it was a blockbuster. People flocked into Savannah on their vacations to see the infamous locations mentioned in the book. Savannah, always genteel and accommodating where money is concerned, set up official tours. Readers, you still can find tours! Plus, documentaries were done, a movie was made:

https://youtu.be/bUvm4Yd4ebA Trailer to the Clint Eastwood movie.


The current tour:

http://www.mercerhouse.com/tickets.cfm


Below is the Wikipedia entry for 'The Mercer House', now infamous for the deadly gun battle between the young street hustler, Danny Hansford and a wealthy older gentleman of Savannah, Jim Williams. But do not read this link if you wish to be unspoiled, difficult as that may be.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merce...


I won't say more, except to note there isn't a lot here about Black-Americans, other than how a few intersected with the white nouveau rich and old Savannah families as beneficiaries of white philanthropic efforts, despite the fact Black-Americans were the majority population in Savannah. Berendt mentions a few Black-American oddballs he met, who despite their poverty, had come to the attention of the owners of the mansions in Savannah's historical districts. Being slightly insane apparently helped to gain the affection of old white Savannah. The city seems a bit insane itself, ingrown as it is with a type of generational snobbery.

The book chronicles the events surrounding the Mercer House and its owner in a tone of gentle amusement. The people in whom John Berendt has chosen to interest himself are truly characters who should be on a stage. Was Jim Williams guilty?
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