John Berendt’s brilliantly successful book about Savannah is a pure pleasure to read. Published in 1995, it rapidly became a best-seller – in spite of the fact that no-one was sure how to categorize it. On the back of my dog-eared Vintage paperback copy, it’s described, rather bizarrely, as ‘Travel / Crime.’ It’s certainly a masterwork of ‘creative non-fiction’, that ambiguous-sounding term that describes non-fiction written with fictional techniques and creative flair.
The greatest delight of reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil comes from Berendt’s rich evocation of place. Savannah, Georgia, comes vividly to life: the elegant two-storey buildings in its historic district, the shady parks and tree-lined streets. This is a description of beautiful, antique-filled Mercer House and its controversial owner, Jim Williams:
He spoke in a drawl as soft as velvet. The walls of his house were hung with portraits of European and American aristocrats – by Gainsborough, Hudson, Reynolds, Whistler. The provenance of his possessions traced back to dukes and duchesses, kings, queens, czars, emperors and dictators.
Despite his evident wealth and social standing, Williams is in trouble; he is charged with the shooting of young Danny Hansford. The ensuing scandal provides the framework for Midnight, but its real subject is the way of life in Savannah. There are cocktails, parties, gossip, jazz ; transvestites, bankers, restaurant owners, musicians. Everyone knows everyone else. And Savannah’s eccentric individuals are paraded before us, from the black drag queen , the Lady Chablis, to the voodoo priestess, Minerva.
Nothing is ever colourless or boring in the Garden of Good and Evil.