Murder? Or suicide?
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is not fiction. But you wouldn’t know that from the storytelling. This book has become so closely associated with the city of Savannah, Georgia that you can take tours bearing its title and taking you through key sites of the story. But seeing the sights just isn’t the same as reading the book and meeting the characters.
Berendt introduces readers to a wide swath of Savannah personalities from the 1980s. Beginning, middle, and end is about Jim Williams, a self-made socialite and antiques dealer. Everything in between and around the main narrative is what gives the book personality. When Williams lands in jail, Berendt calls on all the forces of Southern culture to spin and twist the story towards a larger character: Savannah itself. Drag queens, food, secret parties, religion, not-so-secret parties, clubs, recluses, tradition, degenerates, gossip, too-much-money, not-enough-money, race, grudges, sex, hospitality, music, dancing, voodoo, guns, history, and football swirl and glitter and spin the story a thousand ways. But in the end, the question that must be answered is this: murder or suicide?
And the answer is as much about reaching a verdict as it is about suggesting the future. The answer is an answer to the question in Savannah that no one is willing to ask: will decline be marked by outsiders (murder) or insiders (suicide)? Can those who are intent on preserving the belle of the southern ball be trusted to be effective and scrupulous? And if/when a verdict is reached, does it really matter if decline is inevitable. Beginning, middle, and end would seem to be about the Jim William’s trials (four total); but beginning, middle, and end suggest that the character of Savannah is also at stake.
Truth is stranger than fiction. John Berendt and the city of Savannah prove that in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with an enjoyable read that tingles all the senses.