This book bore a hole into my TBR list for years. My mother ranted and raved about how much she enjoyed the movie forever and a day, but I still hadn’t seen it. When I realized it was based on a best-selling book, I promised myself I’d read the book first.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the story of Savannah, Georgia. John Berendt is sent to the southern town to write an article about its charm, and he soon falls in love with it and its inhabitants. He spends much of the beginning of the book getting the reader acquainted with the city, it’s past and present splendor. He then takes you along on a journey as he meets the town’s outlandish citizens, like Joe who moves into abandoned mansions (without paying for them) and throws outlandish all night parties every night; Emma, the lady of six thousand songs who sings at every single event, holy or whoreish, in the state; the Lady Chablis, the hilariously outrageous drag queen; and Minerva, a voodoo priestess.
There were many more characters from the town sprinkled throughout the book, all of them outspoken and a bit crazy, but still very entertaining. The book picks up speed when wealthy antiques dealer, Jim Williams, is accused of murdering known bad boy, Danny Hansford, in his extravagant mansion. It doesn’t help that Jim is a Savannah transplant (an outsider) who has had a few run-ins with his neighbors concerning new housing developments in the lower income (read: Black) part of town. The murder and subsequent trial splits the town in two, and John Berendt is there to record it all.
The book was charming just like I imagine the town the story is based on to be, however, I ran into two somewhat small issues. Though the book was published in 1996, the author still seemed to take an us versus them approach in writing of the Black part of town. As a reader who reads mostly authors of color, it was somewhat startling to see Black people referred to as a separate entity, as if they weren’t integrated into the Savannah society. I did appreciate him attending and writing in detail of the debutante ball put on by the Alphas, which gave a glimpse of Black life other than the poor and destitute, creating somewhat of a balance, but other than that, we seemed to only come up when referring to poverty.
I also thought the book was far too long. In the second half, it turned into a murder mystery, a very juicy murder mystery that eventually took entirely too long to wrap up. I understand this is a true story and all sides had to be told, but there were times when I became exasperated at how long it took to find out what really happened between Jim Williams and Danny Hansford.
The quirky townspeople helped make this a very entertaining read. I’d recommend this to those interested in southern towns, narrative non-fiction, and those who enjoy a good true to life murder mystery. I can also see this making for a good book club selection.