Nonfiction Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Book By Book
I finally found time to read the narrative nonfiction modern classic Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, after more than 20 years of sitting on my shelf! It was published in 1994, and my mom lent me her hardcover edition soon after that. Do you think she still wants me to return it? It was worth the wait, a highly entertaining true crime story that focuses on the unique culture and quirky citizens of Savannah, Georgia.
The author explains how he came to live part-time in Savannah for eight years. As a magazine reporter in the 1980′s, he decided to take advantage of newly discounted airfares to travel to different places on weekends, and he discovered Savannah during a trip to Charleston. He was so beguiled by the unique place and its people that he rented an apartment there and began to split his time between New York and Savannah. Before long, he felt at home there and so, when a murder took place in his adopted city, he became a part of the story. Interestingly, the murder and the multiple court cases that followed don’t take place until halfway through the book. Part 1 is all about the the city and the people of Savannah, setting the stage for the murder mystery/courtroom drama to come. This is more than enough to keep the reader’s attention, as Savannah is a character unto itself and seems to be populated by colorful and quirky people. From the antiques dealer/house restorer who lives a wealthy lifestyle and throws lavish parties but is squatting in his current residence and always fighting off bill collectors to the outrageous drag queen named Lady Chablis who randomly chooses the author to chauffeur her around town to the mysterious man who everyone says has a jar of poison at home that could kill the entire city if he ever decides to put it into the water supply, the author meets each one and becomes a part of the crazy-quilt fabric of Savannah. Part 2 is more of a straightforward reporting of the murder and its aftermath, including the three different court cases to try the accused murderer.
This book is pure fun. I know that’s a strange thing to say about a story that centers on murder, but this cast of characters is just so outrageous that that they would seem over-the-top in a novel. Similarly, the actual murder and especially the court cases are “this could only happen here” events, like something out of a cheesy movie. But it’s true! Berendt has written a very amusing and engaging story, with plenty of wit. When I laughed out loud the hardest, my husband said, “Ah, you must have gotten to the chapter about Chablis!” Truth really is stranger than fiction, and Berendt captures that strangeness perfectly here.
388 pages, Random House
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