Week 10–Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

This book spit in the face of all my expectations. A title like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil conjures all sorts of sinister images, doesn’t it? I was expecting serial killers, wild urban legends, mass cult suicides, or something of an equally strange, twisted, and depraved nature.  Alas, this work of creative nonfiction by John Berendt has none of these things.  However, once my initial disappointment wore off, I gradually came around and genuinely enjoyed the book.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=Bibliograph07-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0679751521&fc1=F3EDED&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=040404&f=ifrBerendt is a New York City journalist who decides during a trip to Savannah, Georgia, that he likes the city and would like to spend part of his year living there. Eventually, as he meets more and more of Savannah’s eclectic set, he spends increasing amounts of time in Savannah, and very little in New York.  At first, the book just seems to be a parade of highly unusual, larger-than-life characters–an outrageous drag-queen, an incredibly talented piano player with a penchant for rule-breaking, a voodoo priestess, rich and gossipy socialite women, and an antiques dealer with a slew of secrets.

It is this very antiques dealer who becomes the central focus of the book when he is accused of murder. It is here that the “true crime” classification in the bookstore becomes justified.  The rest of the book is a detailed account of the numerous trials of James Williams–the first man in Savannah to be tried four times for the same crime.  For each trial, a new presentation of the evidence is performed. Williams simply will not take “guilty” for an answer, and makes continued appeals until his innocence is pronounced and he is a free man once more.  Berendt is given a lot of freedom with Williams and those surrounding the case, and follows Williams and company, recording the events in the book.  There are other characters unrelated to the case who make an appearance, to be sure, but the focal point of the book is the Williams trial(s) and their effect on Savannah’s social scene.

Really, Berendt’s account makes me want to visit Savannah.  It sounds like a delightful place (I suppose that’s because it’s all about rich people…), full of the charms of the Old South and a whole cast of new and intriguing characters.  And what really threw me off is that it’s hilarious! With such a heavy subject–the murder of a young man and the possibility of an old man spending the rest of his life in prison–and with a title like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (what a great title, right?), one expects there to be a little more solemnity.  But it made me laugh constantly, from both humor and from shock.There’s also some good old fashioned mystery, and a bit of voodoo magic thrown in.   It’s a great mix of a lot of themes, and the best part is that it’s (embellished) truth.  I recommend it! It was a good read.

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