The only thing everyone knew for certain was that on May 2, 1982, in the early hours of the morning, Jim Williams shot Danny Hansford, killing him. That was the boring part. The interesting part was the eight years of trials, retrials, and rumors that followed it as everyone tried to figure out the details of the murder. Documenting it all was John Berendt, in his now-famous travelogue-turned-true-crime-book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
I picked up this book after a family vacation in Savannah, Georgia, over Christmas last year. I'd been there once or twice before, but had never had the chance to go on any of the renowned trolley tours. So, my siblings and I packed ourselves onto still-hot vinyl seating on a drizzly December day and coasted around its well-paced track of historic places in one of the oldest port cities in America. At nearly half of the stops we passed by, our cheery conductors brought up Berendt's work.
Now, I had been working in a bookstore in my home town for several months then, and I'd seen hundreds of copies of this particular book come through our doors in trades and out of them in the hands of customers on their way to Savannah, and my curiosity was, at last, reaching its peak as I listened to the Savannians recount the mystery and murder stories it told. As soon as I got home, on my first day back at work, I picked up a used paperback copy of it that was already a bit worn and set about reading it.
Then life got busy, and the year took a sharp turn from the plans I had made, and my quick read turned into a six-month project that I have finally, finally finished. And I am so, so glad that I did because that book was worth every second.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is fascinating not only for its salacious content but for the fact that it is written in the style of a fiction novel. This is my favorite kind of nonfiction because it focuses on the story it's telling rather than strictly on delivering pure, dry facts. This does mean that the events portrayed are not strictly true (Berendt didn't move to Savannah until 1985, and so some of the events in the first part of the book aren't entirely time accurate), but they are all based on real people and accounts of events from those who were there first-hand. This gives Berendt more freedom to add intrigue and suspense into his story, and to explore the people involved.
The people, frequently referred to by pseudonyms to protect them from the scrutiny of public opinion, feel like characters, full of larger-than-life personality and unbelievable feats. You feel as if you are backstage with Chablis as she wriggles into and out of skimpy dresses and teases John, and you walk with her as she parades through the streets in protest. You smile at the exploits of Joe Odom and his many house guests in houses that aren't his, and though you know you shouldn't, you root for him to get away with his high-wire schemes. You creep with John and Minerva through the "flower gardens" and feel as if you ought to look over your shoulder for the Old Man. And of course, you watch in fascination and horror all of the different accounts of what really happened late that night as the shots rang out and Jim Williams stood over the body of his maybe-lover employee. They are caricatures, with too-strange stories you have to verify for yourself because you cannot believe that people like this could really exist, and when you do, you find the heights and depths of Savannah society in the 1980s were just as bizarre as they were made out to be.
Because this book was written in the 1990s, there are definitely some controversial points in the eyes of modern readers. The depiction of people of color and LGBT+ people are products of their time, uncomfortable and a bit offensive. Something I do applaud Berendt for, though, is that he as our narrator does not seem to carry much if any bias. His phrasing is clearly not intended to offend, as it seems to be using terms that were common at the time, though it is now seen as impolite at best. Perhaps a new edition of the book would be good to update this language?
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. As a lifelong resident of Georgia, the descriptions of sweltering summers and Southern manners resonated with me as much as the local dialects of many of the characters did, because they were strikingly familiar. His depictions of the lazy way people stroll through the open, green squares and up and down River Street are still accurate today, and his closing assertions that "Savannah's resistance to change was its saving grace...its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener" are spot on to the continued, seemingly frozen culture of the city. Progress is made, of course, and change comes to its society in the best of ways, but there will always be something uniquely classic about the city. I loved reading this time capsule and spotting in it the places I had only months before seen and walked through. It made the stories, already based on fact, feel real and tangible, turning them into a living history rather than a dusty file in the back of a courthouse.