Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Audio)

midnightinthegardenSavannah, 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.

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12 Responses to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Audio)

  1. You’re not the last person to read this … I am! I’ve seen this a few times at the library and almost picked it up on several occasions. I think this will need to be among one of my future audios, based on this review. Thanks!

  2. Rachel says:

    I have the hard copy of this and have been meaning to read it for ages – I must get around to it. Your review has made me even more eager to start. It sounds quite an intriguing read. I’d like to watch the film as well, I’ve heard it’s very good.

  3. Tice Belmont says:

    My husband and I listened to this on a long road trip not too long ago. Fascinating stuff. And I loved the the reader–he handled a wide variety of voices perfectly.

  4. Steph says:

    I read this on my honeymoon (in Savannah) and really enjoyed it a ton. I found it really engaging, and as someone who doesn’t read much non-fiction this one worked really well for me. I think that because I had such fun reading it, and it read so much like fiction anyway, I didn’t really mind that the timeline was skewed.

  5. Ann says:

    The title rang a bell with me, but I’m not sure that it was the same sensation in the UK as it was in the US. I’ll put it on my library list and shock my local librarians!

  6. litlove says:

    By no means the last! I’ve picked this up and put it down so many times in the bookstore.Thing is, I didn’t really know what it was about. Now I do! Thank you so much – I’ll certainly be looking out for it again now.

  7. Teresa says:

    Melissa: I picked up the audio several times before checking it out. I’m glad I finally did!

    Rachel: I’ve seen the movie and didn’t like it nearly as well as the book.

    Tice: Yes, the reader was great. You could always tell who was talking.

    Steph: Ooh! I bet that was amazing–to read this in Savannah.

    Ann: It was huge over here. I believe it broke a record for number of weeks on the best-seller list.

    Litlove: Funny how book jackets just don’t give enough information. If you do get this one, I hope you enjoy it!

  8. rebeccareid says:

    I’m not sure I can handle true crime. Any kind of murder stories disturb me. This sounds interesting, but maybe not for me!

  9. Teresa says:

    Rebecca: Well, you could always read the first half and skip the second. The crime occurs at about the midpoint; up until then, there’s barely a whiff of it in the air.

  10. JaneGS says:

    This is the book that made me a John Berendt fan. I picked it up at a used book store, devoured it, and my relatives received copies for Xmas that year. I thought Berendt’s sense of place to be magical and I wanted to catch the first plane to Savannah. The movie is okay, but can’t hold a candle to the book.

    If you like Berendt, consider reading his City of Falling Angels, which is again a personal memoir about his time in Venice shot through with intrigue and fascinating side stories about a plethora of interesting Venetians.

  11. Teresa says:

    Jane: My library has City of Falling Angels on audio, and I do plan to pick it up at some point.

  12. Pingback: Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil « ReviewsbyLola's Blog

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