Do not read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for a crime or mystery story. It is a true crime novel, but the book spends relatively little time on the murder. Instead, it lavishes attention on the town and inhabitants of Savannah. The entire first section of John Berendt’s non-fiction work is devoted to a character study of the charming Southern town; it focuses on anecdotes of the people and events that make Savannah so unique in a variety of ways.
Midnight is one of few books that I would describe as truly picturesque. Berendt does an incredible job of placing the reading squarely in the tree-lined streets and opulent sitting rooms. Many sections of this book feel like a narrated slide show of photographs and video clips – a description that I in no way mean to be derogatory. Having been to Savannah, reading this book felt like visiting it all over again, but with a friend that knew all the dirt and salacious gossip on everyone from the gardeners to the governor.
One of my favorite characters was Chablis, more formally known as The Lady Chablis. Berendt meets the beautiful, sassy black woman one day and becomes her impromptu chauffeur. It is only later in his initial conversation with her that she mentions that her name used to be Frank, and he realizes that she is, in fact, a he. Chablis is a queen of drag queens, the Grand Empress of Savannah, prone to flashy dresses and dramatic exits. She is phenomenal. Chapters with her in them were laugh-out-loud funny, with her Queen Bitch attitude creating all manner of hilarious scenes. Another great character was Joe Odom, the most likeable con man you could imagine. Throughout all of his misadventures, you just couldn’t help but to like him. He plays piano, hosts parties, and apologizes profusely to the people swindled in his schemes. And, the best part about all the people and events in the book was that they were real. Berendt may have colored the events in ways to make them stand out more in a book, but he was taking notes on true events.
I enjoyed the vignettes very much, but I was fairly confused about the crime aspect. For over 150 pages, there was no mention at all of a murder. I knew from the dust jacket that a murder was going to happen, and even who the killer and the victim were. But it just kept… not… happening. When the shooting finally did take place, it rather caught me off guard. The mystery is not who or when, but why. There are a litany of potential reasons for the killing, and much debate over whether it was murder, manslaughter, or self-defense.
Even after the murder, the book is less about the trial than the reaction of Savannah and the personal fallout from the case. While Berendt does cover the trial, the courtroom events are skimmed, neatly summarized before moving back to the more individual stories connected to the murder. These stories include a chapter about a dog, several about a voodoo priestess, and many about the people with plenty of reasons to want the verdict to go one particular way or the other. Personally, I liked this humanistic take on the events. It kept me emotionally engaged through what was likely a boring, drawn-out affair in real life.
Overall, I would say that while crime plays a role in this book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is less about murder and more about Savannah at large. If you’re looking for an entertaining read about the drama beneath the veneer of Southern gentility, look no farther. If you’re looking for murder, intrigue, and courtroom drama, you might want to pick up a John Grisham novel instead.