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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Berendt) - Book Reviews

Book Reviews
Mr. Berendt's writing is elegant and wickedly funny, and his eye for telling details is superb.... Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might be the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to call a travel agent and book a bed and breakfast for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime.
Glenna Whitley - New York Times


After discovering in the early 1980s that a super-saver fare to Savannah, Ga., cost the same as an entree in a nouvelle Manhattan restaurant, Esquire columnist Berendt spent the next eight years flitting between Savannah and New York City. The result is this collection of smart, sympathetic observations about his colorful Southern neighbors, including a jazz-playing real estate shark; a sexually adventurous art student; the Lady Chablis (' "What was your name before that?" I asked. "Frank," she said.' "); the gossipy Married Woman's Card Club; and an assortment of aging Southern belles. The book is also about the wealthy international antiques dealer Jim Williams, who played an active role in the historic city's restoration—and would also be tried four times for the 1981 shooting death of 21-year-old Danny Handsford, his high-energy, self-destructive house helper. The Williams trials—he died in 1990 of a heart attack at age 59—are lively matches between dueling attorneys fought with shifting evidence, and they serve as both theme and anchor to Berendt's illuminating and captivating travelogue.
Publishers Weekly


It's difficult to categorize this book. On one level, it is a travelogue, recounting former New York magazine editor Berendt's eight years in Savannah, Georgia, that beautifully preserved hothouse of the South where eccentric characters like black drag queen Lady Chablis and charming con man Joe Odom blossom in rich profusion. It is also a true-crime tale, the saga of antiques dealer Jim Williams whose 1981 shooting of his sometime lover Danny Hansford in the historic Mercer House obsesses Savannah denizens; they watch as Williams endures four trials and is eventually acquitted, only to die of a heart attack a few months later, haunted (some say) by Hansford's vengeful ghost. Although non-fiction, Berendt's book reads like a novel (he admits he has taken 'certain storytelling liberties'), and this reviewer sometimes wondered where the truth ends and the fiction begins. Still, this entertaining book will appeal to many readers. —Wilda Williams
Library Journal


Perhaps one of the things that make this nonfiction work unique is that its plot centers on a murder, but Berendt takes his sweet time getting around to that fact, allowing the reader to be as surprised as he must have been watching the events unfold. Midnight is a solidly rewarding read. —Martha Schoolman
Booklist


Steamy Savannah—and the almost unbelievable assortment of colorful eccentrics that the city seems to nurture—are minutely and wittily observed here. In the early 1980's, Berendt (former editor of New York magazine) realized that for the price of a nouvelle cuisine meal, he could fly to just about any city in the U.S. that intrigued him. In the course of these travels, he fell under the spell of Savannah, and moved there for eight years. Central to his story here is his acquaintance with Jim Williams, a Gatsby-like, newly moneyed antiques dealer, and Williams's sometime lover Danny Hansford, a 'walking streak of sex'—a volatile, dangerous young hustler whose fatal shooting by Williams obsesses the city.

Other notable characters include Chablis, a show-stealing black drag queen; Joe Odom, cheerfully amoral impresario and restaurateur; Luther Driggers, inventor of the flea collar, who likes it to be known that he has a supply of poison so lethal that he could wipe out every person in the city if he chose to slip it into the water supply; and Minerva, a black occultist who works with roots and whom Williams hires to help deal with what the antiques dealer believes to be Hansford's vengeful ghost.

Showing a talent for penetrating any social barrier, Berendt gets himself invited to the tony Married Women's Card Club; the rigidly proper Black Debutantes' Ball (which Chablis crashes); the inner sanctum of power-lawyer Sonny Seiler; and one of Williams' fabled Christmas parties (the one for a mixed group; the author opts out of the following evening's 'bachelors-only' feast). The imprisonment and trial of Williams, and his surprising fate, form the narrative thread that stitches together this crazy-quilt of oddballs, poseurs, snobs, sorceresses, and outlaws. Stylish, brilliant, hilarious, and coolhearted.
Kirkus Reviews




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