Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a non-fiction book by John Berendt, based on real events that occurred in the 1980’s. I actually saw the 1997 film adaptation (directed by Clint Eastwood) when it came out but although I remember thinking it was very good at the time, conveniently forgot most of the detail which was great because it meant that I came to the book almost as if it was a totally new story!

The book is narrated by Berendt himself. A New York magazine writer and editor, he visits Savannah by chance one weekend as a result of bargain air flights and falls in love with the place. He goes back three years and pretty much adopts Savannah as his home. The main plot of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is wrapped around a murder, of a young and reckless male prostitute named Danny Hansford described as “A Walking Streak of Sex”, however the shooting doesn’t actually take place until the middle of the book. The narrative leading up to that is all about Savannah and its eccentric inhabitants. In the aftermath of the shooting the book charts the progress of the murder trial..

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a fascinating and involving book. Although it is based on fact, it has been compared to Capote’s In Cold Blood in the way that it is a sort of ‘non-fiction novel’. If anything the characters are more crazy than you often find in a fiction book! To give you a flavour of the personalities;

Chablis (a black she-he showgirl)

“I dance, I do lip synch, and I emcee,” she said. “Shit like that. My mama got the name Chablis of a wine bottle.”

Serena Dawes (an aging society girl)

“She had a wardrobe that consisted mostly of shortie nightgowns and peignoirs. They revealed her still-shapely legs and discreetly swathed her upper half in clouds of feathers and silk chiffon. She dyed her hair flaming red and painted her fingernails and toenils dark green. She bullied and wheedled; she railed and purred. She drawled and cussed and carried on. For emphasis, she threw objects accross the room – pillows, drinks, even Lulu the poodle.”

I was also very much taken with Emma Kelly “The Lady of Six Thousand Songs”. I could go on but I would prefer to leave it to readers to discover this myriad of characters themselves.

Apparantly after the book came out, lots of tourists wanted to visit Savannah. However even thought I was totally fascinated by what Berendt described I wouldn’t say I would want to go live in Savannah. While it seemed like beautiful and bizarre place there were very dark themes – underlying racial tension and a city that furiously protected itself from change at the cost of progress.

It was only really the third quarter of the book where I felt a bit of a lull in the writing. I found at times I wanted to completely focus on what was happening with the trial and Berendt kept flipping to talking about different characters. However I loved the ending of the book which I found really satisfying.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is wonderfully written book with glorious and funny characterisation and descriptions which make you feel as if you are totally imbued in the atmosphere of Savannah. Berendt’s passion for it as a place, is reflected in every sentence. Don’t go expecting a classic ‘murder myster and a page turning murder trial all mixed up with a bit of voodoo. Although they are very different in substance I would say that if you like In Cold Blood then you’ll love Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

My rating:

9 out of 10

Have you read any ‘non-fiction novels’ that you enjoyed?

22 responses to “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

  1. Well I am going to HAVE to read this very soon Pol as this sounds absolutely BRILLIANT! I loved In Cold Blood, as you know, and so the fact that this – I want to say sounds like it has the same feel, but thats wrong – is a book you have placed in the same esteem means its a must read!

    Ooooh I might have to pick this up when I get home! Well maybe not quite that soon…

    • novelinsights

      I definitely think you would like this – such brilliant characters (I think you’ll fall in love with Emma Kelly too).

  2. Oh I absolutely loved this book – one of my all time favourites. Interestingly I read the book first and shortly thereafter I saw the film, which really left me cold – I didn’t think it was nearly as good. I wonder if I’d have liked it more if I had seen it before reading. What a wonderful book though – it did leave me wanting to visit Savannah but certainly as a tourist and not as a potential resident, I agree with what you say about the way the city’s attitudes come across, and the strange atmosphere which seems to pervade the place. Such great characters in the book though – I loved Luther Driggers with the flies on strings! Such a hilarious image.

    I’ll definitely have to read In Cold Blood.

    The thing which springs to mind for me as a novel based on a true story is A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith – a classic in the states, I understand, but not one I’d ever heard of before spotting it in Strand Books in NY. It’s the tale of a young girl growing up in extreme poverty in early 20th century Brooklyn, but it’s not at all a typical coming of age story, and it deals with a lot of difficult and important social, cultural and racial issues through a very easy-to-read and compellingly conversational narrative style. Very inspiring and thought-provoking. I’d recommend it!

    • novelinsights

      Oh yes, Luther what an oddity – and the poison too??! In Cold Blood is probably a bit more ‘serious’ in comparison as there is less of the wacky characters but similar in style and I found it gripping. Thanks for the suggestion of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I have to admit that I’ve never heard of it but will look out for a copy!

  3. I have this book at home, Polly, and have heard great things about it.

    Strangeley enough, I wasn’t a massive fan of In Cold Blood. I liked it but I didn’t love it. That said, I do like non-fiction books.

    • novelinsights

      Ahhh interesting, about In Cold Blood not being massively to your liking. I guess it depends why you didn’t like it. Midnight is a bit more ‘fun’ in the sense that some of the characters are hilarious whereas In Cold Blood is mostly depressing!

  4. Susi (The Book Affair)

    I like the sound of this book, hadn’t heard about it before. Now I shall add it to the ever-growing Mount TBR. I don’t really think I’ve read many ‘non-fiction novels’. Some of the ones I’ve read were written by survivors of the Holocaust. One I’m thinking of, “Girl in the Red Coat” by Roma Ligocka read as fiction, but it was her account, of her childhood and the rest of her life. I don’t read enough non-fiction because I’m more of a fiction reader myself, so non-fiction novels like this one might be just the right way to go. 🙂

    • novelinsights

      I think that this is very accessible. Like you I don’t tend to read much in the way of ‘factual’ writing and prefer fiction but do like the hybrid….

  5. I really loved this too. I read it some years ago when I was travelling in the US, though I never got to Savannah (where it is apparently known simply as “the book”).

    Like some othes who have commented here, I would definitely recommend “In Cold Blood”, which stayed with me for a long time after I read it. I would also recommend “Rebels” by Peter de Rosa, although I think it may currently be out of print.

    • novelinsights

      In Cold Blood is one of my favourite books. I remember putting it down and then thinking ‘wow’ when I’d finished it. Thanks for the suggestion of Peter de Rosa also…

  6. I read this when it first came out, what, some 15 years ago?! I was working in a bookstore at the time and it was all the rage among the staff. I remember enjoying it a lot.

    I’ve since read Berendt’s book The City of Falling Angels, which you might like given it’s about Venice and the people, mainly expats, that live there.

    • novelinsights

      I’m sort of interested in his other one although judging from your review Midnight might be a bit of a one trick pony? I guess I should really read more before making that judgement though!!

  7. I had never heard of this book, or the author, before, but it does sounds fascinating. You’ve added yet another book to my wishlist.

    • novelinsights

      Glad you like the sound of this. I actually knew of the film but didn’t realise it was a book until my boyfriend bought it for me.

  8. Gosh – I have heard of this book a lot, and had no idea what it was about, but the picture of it I’d built up in my head was not remotely like this! I thought it was a philosophy book, or something…

    Fact/fiction books… hmm. I know I’ve read some, but I can’t think of any, except Angelica Garnett’s short story collection The Unspoken Truth, which was good – sort of fiction but also autobiography.

    • novelinsights

      Hahaha. That’s so funny that you thought that but I can see why – it sounds like a bit of an ethical / moral book if you just go by the title. Thanks for the suggestion too!

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  10. I agree – I love both Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and In Cold Blood. They’re two books I always recommend to people who haven’t read them.

  11. I loved In Cold Blood so it sounds like I should read this! I had heard the title before but never knew what it was actually about. It sounds like the setting of the book in Savannah is really interesting too.

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