Murder or Mistake?

Author: John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the story of a rich, eccentric man; a vicious murder; a voodoo priestess; a sassy drag queen; a would-be-poisoner; a lovable squatter; and a bunch of snobby rich people in old town Savannah, Georgia, who love to talk about a good scandal. The surprising thing about this story – which I honestly thought was a novel until I sat down to finally write this review – is that it is a true story. This explains some of its eccentricities, it’s definite lack of focus and magazine style character portrayals that are more sensational than necessary.

This book has been on my too-read list for decades, so by the time I finally snatched the paperback lent to my husband (who, let’s be honest, is never going to get around to reading it), I had high expectations. Add to that my new-found obsession with true crime, courtroom dramas, and mysteries, and well, it seemed like I would be a happy camper. And the story starts well enough. The prose is lush, juxtaposing this old-world place with its mossy trees and high society with the modern elements of drag queens and seedy districts with rampant booze and sexy shows. But it soon gets tiring, going from captivating to overwrought. I wanted to get to the plot, specifically to this scandalous murder. I wanted to hear all the grizzly details and then decide if eccentric Jim Williams, gay millionaire with a dead, previously disorderly lover, was guilty of cold-blooded killing or was simply acting out in self-defense.

It takes a long, long time before readers really get to meet the elusive Williams or his victim, the fiery Danny Hansford who is half violent, half desperate. Berendt is too in love with capturing atmosphere, too in love with tangents about characters who ultimately don’t tie into the main thread at all. For example, why spend so much time with the drag queen if he doesn’t play into the plot, if he doesn’t overlap in some way with Williams and the mystery? The same could be said for the famous squatter and his friends, the dude who wants to poison the whole town, plus a dozen other periphery characters who steal valuable time away from the murder investigation and fallout.

Berendt’s sopheric style never breaks the surface. The story never emerges from its magazine style setting, and honestly, all the characters are unlikable or boring. Half are rich snobs, only interested in others if the socialization can promote their own schemes, and half are semi-violent, entirely selfish persons who are unique and interesting, but not likable. Both killer and victim fall into the later category.

It’s at least halfway through the story before we get to the killing and a summary version of the trial. With this, the second half of the book started to gain a little momentum, but I was bored and tired of Williams already. Then a random voodoo priestess joins the story, and it all becomes too ridiculous and caricatured for words. Everything feels too much like we are reading a sensationalized, well written, but obscure feature story. Nothing is especially realistic or elegant, which is ironic considering this story is technically non-fiction. I suppose it is interesting, in the way of all kooky things, but it becomes too much of a caricature of itself, and by the last page, I was relieved to be done.

Of course, I seem to be in the minority and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is beloved by many, so don’t just take my word for it. Try it out, but don’t make the mistake of building it up too much as a “fiction-like” tale, and don’t expect the plotting and pacing of a novel. Instead, go into this like you are reading a very long magazine article or newspaper feature. Expect strangeness, a good twist on description and atmosphere, but little depth and less revelation. This is one mystery that offers no solution and brooks no introspection.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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