Crazy, kooky Savannah: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt


cover midnightVintage, 1994

ISBN 0679751521 (ISBN13: 9780679751526)

“You mustn’t be taken in by the moonlight and magnolias. There’s more to Savannah than that.”

What this book lacked in the “mystery” category, it more than made up for it in rich description, sensuality and humor, prefect from my Mysterious USA Reading Challenge. I also loved the movie and was sure I was going to like the book. As a bonus, the movie’s characters are so large, that I didn’t remember much of the plot to begin with.

Describing the lives and follies of Savannah’s upper crust and the more colorful characters belonging to other social strata, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil portrays Savannah as the perfect place for eccentrics and flamboyant personalities. Due to its self-imposed isolation, Savannah has managed to retain a unique charm and character, both in its architecture and people that other southern cities have lost.

Even though it is a work of nonfiction, Berendt’s book reads like a novel and describes the murder case against Jim Williams for the killing of a young man in his study inside the famous Mercer House. Spanning over a decade, the case enraptured the city, as everyone wondered whether it was murder or a case of self defense.

Berendt was in a perfect position to write the book, having infiltrated the eccentric Savannah elite years before the incident as he shuttled between New York and the sleepy southern city, mingling with all kinds of people from all walks of life.

The kooky characters and their obsessive adhesion to equally unusual and outdated social norms and customs definitely take center stage in the book. From the Cotillion ball to the loner who walks around with the ability to poison the entire town and the dead dog who gets walked every day, it is even more fun to realize that these are actually real people. At the end of the book Berendt says he only changed a few names to protect the privacy of certain individuals—but the rest, according to Berendt—is true to life.

The book emphasizes Savannah’s isolation, which is a point of pride for its citizens. Berendt mentions a few times that outsiders go to Savannah, fall in love with its beauty and begin to offer suggestions on how to change and improve it. These “Gucci carpetbaggers,” as they are referred to in the book, are quickly run out of town. Savannah natives apparently like things the way they are and don’t take kindly to those who try to change it.

However, it is said that despite their unwillingness to change, people in Savannah are friendly and welcoming, and they certainly are in the book. Savannah is apparently so convivial that it is called the “Hostess City of the South,” mostly due to the lively parties.

This was a great description of Georgia cities:

“We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where do you go to church/’ In Augusta the ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is ‘What would you like to drink?’

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