Savannah, Georgia, a small southern city known for its history and its hospitality, is both the setting and the subject for John Berendt’s 1994 book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. When this book was first released, it was a word-of-mouth sensation. Everyone I knew seemed to be reading it, but I let the book pass me by. Now that I’ve listened to the audiobook, I can understand why this travel/true crime book was so well-received.
The opening chapters of the book focus on some of the more unusual citizens of Savannah. There’s Jim Williams, the weathly antiques dealer who once harassed a film crew working outside his house by hanging a Nazi flag so that it appeared in all their shots; Luther Driggers, an inventor who’s reputed to possess a vial of poison that’s so lethal it could kill the whole city if poured into the water supply; Joe Odum, a tour guide and entertainer who opens his rented home to all comers, zoning laws be damned; and the Lady Chablis, a drag queen who is all woman. Berendt’s descriptions of these people are just wonderful. He lets them do most of the talking and doesn’t ever seem to make fun of them or judge them. Like a lot of people, I was especially taken with the Lady Chablis, mostly because she seemed so comfortable in her skin. Sure, she may need hormone shots to be the woman she is, but she owns her identity and carries it off with aplomb. Yes, her behavior is outrageous and sometimes offensive, but she knows who she is and she’s committed to being that person. It’s hard not to like her.
At about the halfway point, the book shifts gears as Jim Williams is arrested for murdering his lover, Danny Hansford. This is a huge scandal, not just because Williams was a prominent citizen but because Hansford was known to be “the best lay in Savannah” and not everyone had gotten a turn with him. The facts of the case are unclear. Williams did shoot Hansford, but he claimed it was self-defence. This section of the book took me longer to warm up to because I had enjoyed the travelogue so much and wasn’t really interested in listening to a true crime book. However, as the trial—trials, actually—went on, I became engrossed in that part of the story as well. I wanted to hear other characters weigh in on the case, and I was interested in how Williams’s wealth and his sexuality affected the outcome, not to mention whether the voodoo priestess that he hired could work effective magic on his behalf.
The audiobook is well done. The reader, Jeff Woodman, handles the different voices very well, which is important in a book in which the subjects do most of their own talking. The book does feature a short talk from Berendt himself about the writing of the book. In this section, I learned that his account of his own activities wasn’t in fact accurate. The book reads as if Berendt had already started his book when the Hansford shooting occurred. I remember thinking how convenient it was that he happened to be writing a book about Savannah when this huge thing happened. Lucky for him, right? However, Berendt did not come to Savannah to start the book until after the shooting, and so several of the conversations in the early chapters are manufactured. I can understand why he did it—his method of extensively setting the scene before the shooting is effective, but it was still a disappointment to find that he had tweaked the time line so much.
That said, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is still a worthwhile read. If I’m not in fact the last person to read this, you might consider trying it out yourself. I’m sorry I waited so long.