Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John BerendtMidnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Narrator: Jeff Woodman
Published by Random House Audio on December 1, 2005
Source: Purchased
Genres: True Crime
Length: 15 hrs 11 mins
Pages: 386
Format: Audiobook
Purchase at Bookshop.org or Audible
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Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt's narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt interweaves a first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

The story is peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman's Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the "soul of pampered self-absorption"; the uproarious black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a true crime classic and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read it. I will say it reads more like a novel than non-fiction, in part because the author inserts a fictionalized version of himself meeting the people of Savannah long before he actually arrived in town. He gives us a front-row seat to the characters and events leading up to the day Jim Williams shoots Danny Hansford and what follows.

The first third or so of the book is meandering in a good way. We meet some of the people of the city, from the old money folks to the “upstarts,” from pianists to drag queens. Some characters are so over the top that knowing they were true is fun. We also learn some of the history of the place and the historical figures associated with it.

After the death (murder?) of Hansford, we see how old rivalries, political ambitions, and even societal expectations affect how Williams is treated. He ends up being tried four times for the murder. The courtroom scenes are interesting as is the way Williams is treated by his friends. And four times? For what, at least according to the author, was self-defense?


About John Berendt

John Berendt was born in New York in 1939 and graduated from Harvard University in 1961. While at Harvard, he was on the editorial board of the Harvard Lampoon. From 1961 to 1969, he was an associate editor at Esquire and later wrote for David Frost and Dick Cavett. Berendt served as editor of New York magazine from 1977 to 1979 and wrote a monthly column for Esquire from 1982 to 1994. Berendt is the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and The City of Falling Angels, a #1 New York Times bestseller.

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