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The Sunday Salon: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

The Sunday Salon.com Last week I posted a Narrative Nonfiction 5 list of Spooky Stories, picking some nonfiction that reminded me of Halloween. The third book on the list, and the one that got the most responses in the comments, was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, which I just finished reading this weekend.

The book is sort of a conglomeration of types of narrative nonfiction – part travelogue, part profile, and part true crime – but manages to pull off every part successfully, resulting in a book that’s lush in scenery, broad in characters, and tinged with mystery and intrigue.

Part of the reason the book can pull so many strings together is that Berendt is a great writer. He’s got the gift of pulling the perfect details to illustrate every character in just a few words, but so memorably each of them is still with me while I write. Take, for example, this description of millionaire antiques dealer Jim Williams:

Half an hour later we went out through the back of Mercer House to the carriage house, where a green Jaguar sports car was parked on an oriental carpet. Williams set his vodka tonic on the control panel and eased the car out into Wayne Street. In moments we were gliding through the quiet streets of Savannah, up and over the Talmadge Bridge and into the darkness of the South Carolina low country.

I actually stopped and read that paragraph out loud to my roommate because it’s just so good – the oriental rug, the Jaguar, the vodka tonic in the car – every detail sets the scene and tells you what you need to know about Jim Williams.

Every other character is equally as well-thought out, which meant that even though there were a lot of them floating around the periphery of the main story, they were all memorable and never distracted from what was going on.

The biggest character is probably Savannah itself, a Southern belle of a city disconnected from the real world with a sense of gentility and the scent of booze. I think stories about places outside the norm are my favorites because of the way they seem both idiosyncratic but also lovable, places I would want to visit just to see if it’s really that nutty.

I’m not going to say anything specific about the “true crime” part of the book, mostly because I think it has the most interest if you don’t know anything about it going in. I’ll just say that it’s not gruesome or creepy or uncomfortable like a lot of true crime, and reads more like a cozy mystery set in Savannah than a book like In Cold Blood (at least for me).

The only reason this book wouldn’t get a full five star rating and more like a 4.5 or 4.75 is because the book is really about a lot of shallow people, and although it’s fabulously well-written and fun to read, I felt like it was missing that teeny bit of something that makes it relevant as more than just an awesome story. But that’s sort of a picky personal detail – for all its frivolity, this book is a great example of narrative nonfiction that I’d recommend to almost anyone.

For this interested, I’ve been doing a week of reviews of books that remind me of Halloween. The two I featured before this were The Writing Class by Jincy Willett and Candyfreak by Steve Almond. Enjoy, and Happy Halloween!

Now that it’s finally Halloween, what have been some of your favorite haunting reads? Read this book – what did you think?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Vasilly October 31, 2010, 9:35 am

    I love that excerpt you included! Now I want to read “Midnight in the garden”. I have the same problem as you do when it comes to the relevance of a book. I need a book to be relevant to speak to me. I may really enjoy it but probably won’t “love” it.

    • Kim October 31, 2010, 6:32 pm

      Vasilly: The relevance factor is something I think especially for nonfiction – I love stories on all topics, but I especially love stories that make a social statement. I thought this story was great, but missed that sort of big thing. It’s not a problem with the book, more just a note about me as a reader, I think.

  • Trisha October 31, 2010, 9:36 am

    Happy Halloween! I’m betting this is a wonderfully atmospheric book perfect for the season. It’s one I’ve been meaning to read for awhile but never got around to for one reason or another.

    • Kim October 31, 2010, 6:33 pm

      Trisha: The atmosphere in the book was great, especially the second half when they started to do more with voodoo and mysticism. It’s just sort of dark and lovely.

  • Amy October 31, 2010, 9:58 am

    Glad you liked this. I found it a little dry, but still a fun read – and I picked it up and started it while in Savannah which was neat!

    • Kim October 31, 2010, 6:33 pm

      Amy: I really love all the kinds of things in this book, so I didn’t really think it was dry. Maybe the trial, but I liked the way the trial coverage got shorter and shorter as it went on. It really did make me want to visit Savannah.

  • Erin October 31, 2010, 9:59 am

    I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a few years ago. I think the way it evoked Savannah was my favorite part! I don’t even remember what the true crime part was, only that it was there and that it didn’t freak me out the way some true crime does.

    I participated in the Dueling Monsters readalong this month, and I think the two books–The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde–were my favorite Halloween reads. Both were good, classic creepy stories!

    • Kim October 31, 2010, 6:35 pm

      Erin: Yeah, the crime part is actually sort of minor in terms of what the book is about – more just the narrative the rest of the more atmospheric stuff rests on. Both of those sound like great classics – glad you enjoyed them!

  • Jeanne October 31, 2010, 11:09 am

    I love Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, not least because the characters are drawn in such a way that they remind me of my southern relatives. I love the way so many different characters are at the periphery of what I think of as the main storyline, about Jim Williams and his troubles. The Lady Chablis is unforgettable. And I love where the title comes from, and the bit about the literary/mariner epitaph on the bench in the “garden.”

    • Kim October 31, 2010, 6:37 pm

      Jeanne: Those are all of the things I loved about this book! I was so impressed with all the different characters, and The Lady Chablis is really just amazing. I cannot wait to watch the movie and see her.

  • Stephanie October 31, 2010, 11:35 am

    I agree that Savannah is the main character in this book, though there are a wealth of fascinating people. I love the way you described the character development!

    • Kim October 31, 2010, 6:38 pm

      Stephanie: Yes, lots of fascinating people. It’s hard to think back and think about which one was my favorite because I liked so many of them.

  • Stephanie October 31, 2010, 12:42 pm

    I loved this book way more than I expected to. I felt like the characters involved were so interesting!

    • Kim October 31, 2010, 6:39 pm

      Stephanie: Very interesting. I was unexpectedly surprised by how great that part of the book was, just because I worried my expectations might be too high after reading the back of the book description which is awesome.

  • Steph November 1, 2010, 8:13 am

    I was lucky enough to start reading this book while I was in Savannah on my honeymoon last year… I don’t read much non-fiction for pleasure but this was so much fun. It was so enthralling and vivid! My only suggestion is that you don’t watch the movie… I hated it! It really felt shallow and the murder aspect is not dealt with well at all.

    • Kim November 2, 2010, 8:40 pm

      Steph: Oooo, that would be so cool! Bummer about the movie, too. I’ll have to check out some reviews and then decide – or maybe just have really low expectations 🙂

  • Gwen November 1, 2010, 10:50 pm

    Savannagh is a setting and character all of its own in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The city and the characters with their crazy to us quirks, are what sucks readers in and makes them want to visit there for themselves.

    What is amazing to me is how well he details everything, yet uses such few words! Like in that passage you quoted, it gives us a mental picture of the man without going on for pages and pages. That is talent!

    • Kim November 2, 2010, 8:41 pm

      Gwen: Yes – I loved his use of detail. He describes everything so well and so succinctly, it’s a quality I really admire.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) November 2, 2010, 5:11 pm

    I’m so glad to see you loved this book! If you can get to Savannah, the book will come alive for you.

    • Kim November 2, 2010, 8:41 pm

      Kathy: No doubt. Savannah is now on my “travel to” list, for when I have money and copious amounts of free time to gallivant around the South 🙂

  • Lisa November 3, 2010, 3:07 pm

    I loved this book–the characters are all such characters!

    • Kim November 3, 2010, 8:26 pm

      Lisa: Yes, they are such characters – it’s one of the best parts of the story.