Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
John Berendt – 1994
“Creative Fiction” – Not Recommended
It’s been 6 months since I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, and I’m still not sure if I liked it. It’s kind of a murder mystery but not really because we know who killed whom. We just don’t know if it was murder or self-defense. Also, it’s based on a true story, mostly a true story about an author, an outsider who moves to a historic Southern town. It’s more like “creative non-fiction,” which I didn’t know until after I read it, and it may be contributing to my ambivalence. The book is crafted to appear as if an outsider moves to the quaint Georgia city of Savannah, meets some locals, learns their stories, gets to know them, and it’s all fun and games until someone gets shot.
The locals include Jim Williams, a financially successful antiques dealer and owner of Mercer House, which allegedly belonged to the family of famed songwriter Johnny Mercer. Danny Hansford, a semi-drifter and suspected male prostitute in his early 20s, does odd jobs and possibly a few other things for Williams while occasionally staying at Mercer House. Also notable are a female impersonator who refers to “herself” as The Lady Chablis and performs in area nightclubs as well as at least one of Williams’s ex-wives.
There are other characters, which in this case could apply regardless if the book is fiction or non-fiction. Their individual stories comprise roughly the first half of the book but focus mainly on Williams and Chablis. We’re introduced to “her” lifestyle, friends, romances, and work. She follows the narrator/author around for unclear reasons other than I guess for her story to be told because the narrator is rather boring, so it’s not perfectly clear why such a lively, dynamic person would spend any time with him at all.
As for Williams, we learn about his family history as well as the history of Mercer House. He tells us about his international antique pursuits, real estate ventures, wild parties to which most locals hope to be invited, and the suggestions that he’s gay. We also learn about his sympathy for Hansford, a drinking and drug-using semi-drifter with no stable home or family who earns money helping Williams with antique dealings as well as upkeep on the famed house that was also used as the setting for a number of historical films.
Then comes the death of Hansford, and Jim Williams is holding the gun. One of the guns.
The second half of the book follows four different trials for the same shooting death, and I’m carefully saying that instead of murder because that depends on whether you’re the prosecution or the defense. Whether Williams was tormented by these trials because he was gay or because his self-defense story wasn’t believable isn’t clear. What also isn’t clear is why, other than increasing the page count, Berendt spent so much time introducing us to more characters than we need or would care to remember.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil seems as if it was intended to be a courtroom drama. However, despite four visits to courtrooms, the trials themselves just didn’t have enough going on to hold my interest. It’s understandable that the first half needs to set the table for the second half by introducing us to everyone, but those introductions felt forced. It’s hard to accept that any of these characters would reveal themselves so completely to a stranger who had only recently moved to town.
What is also hard to accept is how Williams, obviously an educated man, believes so strongly in the voodoo spells and efforts of Miss Minerva. The title comes from the alleged time from just before to just after midnight, which is the dividing line between voodoo done for good versus voodoo done for evil. There are too many times in the story when Williams is facing a murder conviction, and he’s convinced that the outcome will be influenced by the incantations and spells performed by his elderly friend. It makes it difficult to respect his financial and artistic accomplishments.
It’s likely inconsequential that the narrative is time adjusted. The author actually did move to Savannah, but not until after the shooting and trials, not before. Still, it wouldn’t make much sense to begin the book with the crime because it would involve people and places of which we’d know nearly nothing about, so the adjustment was logical for storytelling. Unfortunately, storytelling isn’t easy when you don’t have much of a story to tell.