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[225] Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt


“Over a period of eight years I just did that, except that my stays in Savannah became longer and my return trips to New York shorter. At times, I came to think of myself as living in Savannah. i found myself involved in an adventure peopled by an unusual assortment of characters and enlivened by a series of strange events, up to and including murder.” [36]

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil revolves around the famous Mercer House, the last great mansion in Savannah that is still in private hands. It is the home of a wealthy antiques dealer, Jim Williams, who rises to the stature of elite by making fortune through buying, restoring, and reselling houses in the historic district of Savannah. Williams’s success and his annual extravagant Christmas party, which has become a fixture of Savannah’s social calendar and serves as a pointer to one’s social status, have invited ill-will of those who have been simmering in jealousy.

I’m told a lot of people pray fervently night after night that I’ll invite them to my Christmas party. [22]

If a man ives in the grandest house in town and gives the most extravagant parties, he could easily come to believe he was superior. He might also think the rules for ordinary people no longer applied to his own. Displaying a Nazi flag would be one way of demonstrating that. [177]

Williams’s arch enemy is Lee Adler, his neighbor, of whom he is contemptuous. Although Savannahians applaud Adler’s singular effort in downtown gentrification, Williams boos him for hogging the limelight and criticizes (and questions) the ulterior motive in relocating the blacks. When Jim Williams allegedly kills Danny Hansford, an assistant is is also known to be a hustler boy, Adler’s long-running feud with Williams and the powers he wields over the district attorney become the weapon to discredit (and to rid of) Williams, whose effort to shun marauding film crew from the town has backfired.

Leopold is the power behind the throne. He’s like the vizier in the Turkish court, the man who stands behind a silken screen and whispers in the sultan’s ear. Lawton doesn’t dare make a move without the instructions from Leopold. [306]

Fuels the intrigue of the murder case is the skein of eccentric and odd-ballish characters who flourish in a hushed and secluded bower of a city that, with its prideful autonomy, resists change. At the appointed hour of any given day, the narrator would cross path with a sentimental, man-about-town piano player who is known for his forgeries, an old faithful porter who walks an imaginary dog, a morose inventor who owns a bottle of poison powerful to kill everyone in town, a hilarious but foul-mouthed black drag queen, and a woman whose omnipresence in all social functions cumulates in a piano bar. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a nonfiction novel that offers endless surprises and humor at each turn of events. The travelogue of a town sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world turns into a scintillating story of crime, snobbism, evil estheticism, sorcery, and mayhem.

386 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

32 Responses

  1. I’m glad you finally got to read this, Matt, AND that you enjoyed it! I would definitely credit this as the book that has turned the non-fiction genre on its head for me!

  2. Great review. Somehow I did not like this book when I read it years ago. Maybe I should give it another try…


  3. I listened to this on audio and it was FABULOUS. All the personalities just exploded into life, and what personalities they are! Having visited Savannah, the story becomes even more poignant. The movie is pretty decent too…I have a thing for Kevin Spacey.

  4. Another friend loved this book and after your review I really think it would be one that I would enjoy.

  5. And a great celebration of Southern eccentricities. And capable of inspiring a little house lust too. I always thought this was a fun read, and am glad you enjoyed it too. And I am with Sandy and the Kevin Spacey thing too. Great actor.

  6. Steph:
    I think The Fortune Cookie Chronicles and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil have been tipping points for me to read non-fiction. I wonder if John Berendt has written other books? Preferably non-fiction?

  7. Tiina:
    I didn’t get to mention that the book is divided into 2 parts. The first part is more like a casual intro to all the odd-balls of Savannah, full of delicious scoops of gossips and eccentricities. The second part is about the murder case that has scandalized the hushed and secluded city. It’s a great read once you get into it. 🙂

  8. Sandy:
    Like I mentioned in the review, consider how secluded and quiet Savannah is, these characters truly live and come alive out of John Berendt’s words. They are all REAL people for whom Berendt has used pseudonyms in the book. Now I am looking forward to watching the film! 🙂

  9. Staci:
    I am glad I have read this. The film would be very intriguing! 🙂

  10. Frances:
    Some of the best stories (fictional and non-fictional) come from the South. This book just embodies some of the most extreme, unforgettable, and eccentric people.

  11. Rhodora Online:
    I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it. 🙂

  12. It’s been years since I’ve seen the movie, but it was Good. Spacey certainly lands some of the most interesting roles. I didn’t realize it was based on actual events. I just might get to reading it at some point.

  13. Mish:
    Neither have I known that it’s based on true story. The category listed at the upper left corner of the back of the book is “Nonfiction/Literature”, which initially found contradictory. It turns out that John Berendt has taken a literary stray of the real characters of Savannah. It’s a great read!

  14. I enjoyed this one. Love the Southern eccentricities and the underbelly of mystery and even voodoo.

  15. I have to read this book, I bought it a few weeks a go second hand and its one of those books I really want to read but just havent quite had the urge to opne yet but this review has pushed it higher up the TBR!

  16. I love this book – the best bit is the scene at the debutante’s ball. That makes me laugh just thinking about it. John Berendt has such an incredible gift for capturing people’s voices. City of Falling Angels isn’t as good, but it does have that same way of catching the exact way the people talk. Amazing.

    The movie, by the way, is worth seeing if only because you get to see the Lady Chablis in the flesh. She is fabulous.

  17. Mon:
    I do not now how effective he voodoo is on the result of the case, but the details with which John Berendt has described the practice of voodoo is intriguing!

  18. savidgereads:
    I have always had the impression that I am one of the last person to read this book, which had stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 214 weeks. Clint Eastwood did a movie out of it with Kevin Spacey and Jude Law. It’s a book that I keep bumping into but have never read for years. You’ll be thrilled I am sure!

  19. Jenny:
    The debutantes ball as Lady Chablis made her entrance. The scene when she started talking to two ladies at the banquet table is viciously funny!

  20. Hello, Matthew! This is one of my favorite reads! It made Savannah seem a magical place for me. I was terribly disappointed about the movie though.

  21. I love the new layout! The blog really looks great with the new header.
    Glad you enjoyed the book as well!

  22. I absolutely loved this book! It’s the reason why I want to go to Savannah. I only saw bits and pieces of the movie, but I thought the actors were well chosen.
    Good post!

  23. I loved this book, and the movie too. In fact, I went with a friend from an old southern family and we kept recognizing types.

    Berendt has a more recent book out about Venice, but I didn’t like it half as well.

  24. I have been wanting to read this for a really long time. One day. Sounds really good.

  25. Peter:
    I’ll keep that in mind. I was thinking about the movie after I turned the last page of the book. But as intriguing as it is, the book is probably difficult to be surpassed.

  26. Marie:
    It’s one of the most memorable books I read this year! I’m glad you like the new layout, which is more “bookish”…I want readers to immediately identify the type of books that I review here. 🙂

  27. Jennygirl:
    The book will stay with me for a very long time. I simply love the funny eccentric characters.

  28. Jeanne:
    Venice??? Oh I should check it out… 🙂

  29. mari:
    The beginning of the book is a bit slow, but give Berendt a bit time to introduce his characters, who are based on real people. They will then cross path and develop into a murder story.

  30. Brilliant review. I’m currently scouring reviews for tips, and, with any luck, vocabulary words.

    Goodness! It never occured to me until this moment that the word “mayhem”, alone and with out aid, could easily be one of the most intriguing words in history. Not only does it cause you to reflect on every one of the most hectic and interesting moments of your life, but it promises that something in the future will be inescapably frantic and mind-boggling. What more could a reader ask for? Thanks for tacking that on! I’m looking forward to reading more of your reviews!

  31. […] many fiction and nonfiction? Fiction 70; non-fiction 5. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt is classified as non-fiction but the book reads like a novel with an abundance of […]

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