John Berendt

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Martha Schoolman (review date 15 October 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 4, October 15, 1993, pp. 413-14.

[In the following review, Schoolman offers a positive assessment of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.]

[John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story] is a wonderfully subtle and well-told story of life in Savannah, Georgia, during the eight years the New York-based Esquire magazine columnist spent there as an "experiment in bi-urban living." It is an old saw that the Deep South is populated exclusively by faded beauty queens, con men, eccentric socialites, and a skele-ton in every closet, but Berendt manages to tread on the edges of the stereotype without caricature or condescension. "Always stick around for one more drink," one of the local characters advises him early in the book. "That's when things happen. That's when you find out everything you want to know." Berendt not only takes the drink but is game for every half-baked errand he is asked to perform, always with excellent narrative results. 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.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 October 1993)

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SOURCE: A review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXI, No. 20, October 15, 1993, p. 1300.

[In the following review, the critic offers praise for Midnight in the the Garden of Good and Evil.]

Steamy Savannah—and the almost unbelievable assortment of colorful eccentrics that the city seems to nurture—are minutely and wittily observed [in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story].

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 US that intrigued him. In the course of these travels, he fell under the spell of Savannah, and moved there for a few 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 Club; the rigidly proper Black Debutantes' Ball (which Chablis crashes); the inner sanctum of power-lawyer Sonny Seiler; and one of Williams's fabled Christmas parties (the one for a mixed group; the author opts out of the following evening's "bachelors only" fête). 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.

Rhoda Koenig (review date 10 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "That's What We Like about the South," in New York Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 2, January 10, 1994, pp. 57-8.

[ In the following review,...

(This entire section contains 933 words.)

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Koenig discusses the colorful and eccentric characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.]

When John Berendt, a former editor of this magazine [New York], decided to spend some time in Savannah, he thought he could write a book about this decayed but elegant one-time capital of the cotton kingdom, a city so hospitable that it provides a marble mausoleum for any visitors who happen to die there. After a while, though, his research started to wander from the restoration of the Victorian district, or anecdotes about such past Savannahians as Conrad Aiken and Johnny Mercer. "We do our best to set you on the straight and narrow," a neighbor of Berendt's complained, "and look what happens. First you take up with folks like Luther Driggers, whose main claim to fame is he's gettin' ready to poison us all. Then you drive around in an automobile that ain't fit to take a hog to market in, and now you tell us you're hangin' out with a nigger drag queen. I mean, really!" Some might think, though, that the neighbor is not one to talk: He moves from place to place, tapping other people's utility lines, writing bad checks, and opening whatever house he is living in—including one in which he is illegally squatting—to bogus historic tours, at times while occupied with one of his lady friends. "Beyond this door lies the mansion's master bedroom," his loyal guide will say, "and today the editors of Southern Accents magazine are photographing it for publication, and we cannot disturb them."

The rather somber title of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil doesn't suggest the stream of rococo personalities within, expressing themselves uninhibitedly in this city that is, as one grande dame puts it, "gloriously isolated" and likes it like that. Here old-fashioned formality ("This is a town where gentlemen own their own white tie and tails") is allied with an eccentricity so marked that the whole place seems to be in a permanent state of tilt. Besides Chablis (the transvestite who revenges herself on respectable black society by crashing the black debutante ball) and Luther (who is thought to be plotting to poison the water supply, and walks flies attached to colored strings), there are William Simon Glover, who, for a very good reason, walks an imaginary dog, and Harry Cram, a remittance man who punishes latecomers by shooting the hood ornaments off their cars as they come up the drive. With characters like these, you don't need writing that draws attention to itself, as Berendt realizes: Though his purpose is intrusiveness, his prose is impeccably restrained. The one exception is a chapter about a girl's sexual encounter with a psychopath; by adopting the girl's voice and thoughts, the writing occasionally becomes as lurid as its subject.

The evil, the equivocal, and the scary in Midnight are represented by that psychopath and a cool, courtly antiques dealer called Jim Williams, who lives in one of the grandest mansions in town and whose annual Christmas party makes uninvited socialites want to cut their throats. At the party Berendt attends, in a house filled with Fabergé boxes, Sargent portraits, and imperial silver, a Nazi historian asks an heiress if she recognizes the make of revolver he is carrying. "Of course I do," she says. "My late husband blew his brains out with one of those." Another one chimes in, "Oh! So did mine! I'll never forget it." The talk of gunplay is more than usually unsettling in view of the fact that the host is under indictment for murder. A few months before, Williams killed a young handyman who, he said, had shot at him and missed. The man's record of vandalism and violence was so long that the coroner remarked, "Mr. Williams probably did his civic duty shooting this sonofabitch." But Williams, it seems, had been paying the dead man for some decidedly odd jobs.

Considering the shooting a lovers' quarrel, the district attorney has Williams tried three times (two convictions are overturned on appeal, and a third jury fails to reach a verdict) before a fourth trial decides his fate. In the process, the enforcers of Savannah law show that their ideas of correct behavior are as relaxed as those of its partygoers. Official reports are given to the defense with crucial statements removed or whited out by the D.A.'s office; Williams is allowed, while awaiting trial and after being convicted, to travel to Europe and New York for purchases and parties. But in assuming that the jurors will extend their tolerance of sexual irregularity to those whom one courtroom observer calls "hermaphrodites," Williams makes the Oscar Wilde mistake of excessive urbanity. "We'd had sex a few times," he says of the dead man. "'I had my girlfriend, and he had his. It was just an occasional, natural thing that happened.' The expressions on the jurors' faces suggest they do not find this arrangement natural at all."

As the Williams case shows, behind the traditions and grace of Savannah can lurk something quite unnerving—as Berendt also saw when the St. Patrick's Day parade passed, with its Confederate marchers accompanied by a horse-drawn wagon. From the street the wagon looked empty, but from a rooftop he could see that it held the bloody corpse of a Yankee. In deftly mingling the frivolous and sinister, he has created an immensely entertaining portrait of Savannah high and low.

Lee Lescaze (review date 4 February 1994)

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SOURCE: "Sin and Hurt Mixed with Charm Down South," in The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 1994, p. A8.

[In the following excerpt, Lescaze praises Berendt's memorable characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil but laments the book's excessive focus on the Williams' trials and questions his blending of fact and fiction in a nonfiction work.]

Joe Odom, a genial rogue who calls himself the host of Savannah and specializes in freeloading, round-the-clock parties and passing bad checks, says Savannah has three basic rules:

—Always stick around for one more drink.

—Never go south of Gaston Street.

—Observe the high holidays—St. Patrick's Day and the day of the Georgia-Florida football game.

Not all Savannahians play by Mr. Odom's rules, of course, but his dedication to drinking, partying and a snobbery that ignores certain sections of the city is shared by most of the dozens of exotics who feature in John Berendt's entertaining account of good times, serious crime and raffish behavior, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

I don't know what this book will do for Savannah tourism overall, but it is certain to attract anyone with a taste for old houses and enduring vices.

One Savannahian who had both was Jim Williams, a controversial and flamboyant antiques dealer. How does it feel to be nouveau riche, Williams was asked. "It's the riche that counts," he replied. Of the old-money social elite, Williams told Mr. Berendt that if they share a single trait, "it's their love of money and their unwillingness to spend it."

Some members of old families fought with or snubbed Williams. But Williams was famous for his Christmas party in his home, the largest private residence in the city. The grandeur of his house, the beauty of its furnishings, his clever manipulation of his guest list and his lavish spending turned Williams's gala into Savannah's party of the year.

From Williams, Mr. Berendt got an introduction to Savannah's darker side. "You mustn't be taken in by the moonlight and magnolias. There's more to Savannah than that. Things can get very murky," Williams said while describing a series of murders among the rich that had been swept under the rug.

Soon, murk descended on Williams himself. In his study, he shot and killed a 21-year-old hustler named Danny Hansford who had been his lover and also worked in his furniture-restoration shop.

Hansford's fame for sexual ability had been spreading. Prentiss Crowe, an old-money Savannahian, reacted to the killing with confidence that Savannah justice would once again shield a rich man caught in an exposed position, but with equal certainty that some men and women would be resentful. He explained: "Hansford was known as a good time … but a good time not yet had by all."

In keeping with the elite's attitude toward the less fortunate dead, Williams was cool when asked in court about the appropriateness of his relationship with Hansford given their ages. "I was 52-years-old, but he had 52 years' worth of mileage on him," he replied.

New York-based Mr. Berendt fell for Savannah's sinful ways and old-fashioned charms in the early 1980s and decided to take up bi-city living. He wasn't there long before he saw a book before his eyes.

Midnight is at its best when it is sketching the nature of the city and introducing characters such as the black transvestite Chablis; Col. Jim Atwood, owner of Hitler's silverware; and Luther Driggers, a man who may or may not have a vial of deadly poison, but is more immediately determined to make goldfish glow in the dark.

The Williams murder trials—there were three of them—became the core story of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Mr. Berendt is a skillful narrator, but interesting as the Williams case is, it doesn't remain fascinating over all the pages Mr. Berendt gives it.

All the main characters are memorable, though, at least until the reader reaches the book's last page and finds an author's note revealing that a number of pseudonyms have been used and, what's more, Mr. Berendt has altered descriptions of some people to protect their privacy. "Though this is a work of nonfiction, I have taken certain storytelling liberties, particularly having to do with the timing of events," Mr. Berendt adds. Altered how? Was Danny Hansford really Danielle Hansford? And what storytelling liberties allow a nonfiction writer to alter chronology? Faction is an unlikable hybrid.

Jonathan Yardley (review date 6 February 1994)

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SOURCE: "Even in the Best of Cities," in Book World—The Washington Post, February 6, 1994, p. 3.

[Yardley is an American critic and biographer. In the following review, he praises Berendt's elegant prose and sharp eye in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.]

Herewith one of the most unusual books to come this way in a long time, and one of the best. Indeed it is two fine books for the price of one. The first is a portrait of Savannah, "a rare vestige of the Old South," a "hushed and secluded bower of a city on the Georgia coast." The second is a true-crime account of the murder of a young male hustler named Danny Hansford and the four murder trials undergone by his sometime employer and lover, Jim Williams, "a successful dealer in antiques and a restorer of old houses." No doubt it is this second to which most readers will be attracted, inasmuch as the case offers everything from sex to violence to voodoo, but caveat emptor: the first story will blow your mind.

Being a reader neither of New York magazine, of which John Berendt was once editor, nor of Esquire, for which he writes a column, I confess to being caught totally off guard by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The reader ignorant of Berendt's skills is in for equal (which is to say ample) measures of surprise and delight, for his prose is both elegant and seamless while his eye is as sharp as a stiletto. He can make you laugh out loud and he can bring you up short, a splendid one-two punch all too rarely encountered in what passes for writing these days.

Berendt, a New Yorker, first visited Savannah in the early 1980s on what began as a lark but rapidly became an infatuation. He was drawn to the city by "the beauty of the name itself: Savannah" and by certain romantic images it quickly formed in his mind: "rum-drinking pirates, strong-willed women, courtly manners, eccentric behavior, gentle words and lovely music." In substantial measure those images were shaped by two people: the aforementioned Jim Williams, with whom Berendt speaks in a masterly opening chapter, and Mary Harty, an elderly member of the city's aristocracy who, in the second chapter, helps Berendt bring Savannah into focus. To wit:

"We may be standoffish," she said, "but we're not hostile. We're famously hospitable, in fact, even by Southern standards. Savannah's called the 'Hostess City of the South,' you know. That's because we've always been a party town. We love company. We always have. I suppose that comes from being a port city and having played host to people from faraway places for so long. Life in Savannah was always easier than it was out on the plantations. Savannah was a city of rich cotton traders, who lived in elegant houses within strolling distance of one another. Parties became a way of life, and it's made a difference. We're not at all like the rest of Georgia. 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 they ask your grandmother's maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is 'What would you like to drink?'"

A party town and a drinking town but not, by any stretch of the imagination, a wild town: "Savannah was a place of manners and decorum, first and foremost." Even so rakish a fellow as the singularly engaging Joe Odom, self-described as "a tax lawyer and a real estate broker and a piano player," a layabout whose goal in life is to "mix business and pleasure in whatever proportion I wanted," plays according to his own version of Savannah's rules of decorum. The city is sufficiently tolerant and easy-going to embrace eccentricity in a wide variety of guises, but always within the parameters of a courtly decorousness such as one might expect to find within the lyrics of a song by Savannah's favorite son, Johnny Mercer, whose music is distinguished by what Mary Harty calls "a buoyancy and a freshness."

All of this being so, it need scarcely be said that Savannah was shocked to the quick when word got out in May, 1981, about the killing of Danny Hansford by Jim Williams, a case that quickly disclosed "a plot involving sodomy, murder and theft." Once they got over the initial impact of the news, most people in the elite circles traveled by Williams assumed that he would be let off on the grounds that he had fired at Hansford in self-defense, but the prosecution chose to argue that "the shooting of Danny Hansford was neither self-defense nor a crime of passion but a carefully planned murder"—a contention accepted by all members of two juries and all but one of a third before finally being rejected by a fourth once the case was at last moved out of town and away from the various technicalities that caused previous verdicts to be overturned.

Berendt followed these developments closely and describes them with clarity and wit, but without strained efforts to turn them into a morality play. This is consistent not merely with the highly uncertain facts of the case but also with the worldly temper of old Savannah; the city may have been troubled by the case but not so as to let its distasteful details cloud the prevailing local calm. "We happen to like things just the way they are!" is how Mary Harty had characterized that mood in her conversation with Berendt, a judgment that in the end he is not inclined to dispute, as his concluding paragraph so handsomely declares:

For me, Savannah's resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.

It's difficult to imagine that another writer could more faithfully or more keenly portray both the lush enclosure and its inhabitants. Some characters have Berendt's attention from first page to last while others make only brief appearances, but all are drawn with care and wry sympathy. Though his focus is primarily on the white upper crust, Berendt is attuned to the complexities of black life in a city that may have been described by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1964 as "the most desegregated city in the South" but that in the 1980s was beset by black "anguish and despair." He takes equal delight in Jim Williams's lavish annual Christmas party and in the lush mysteries of Bonaventure Cemetery, just as he is equally comfortable raising a glass at Joe Odom's round-the-clock bacchanal and sipping tea with a grande dame of high society.

The objection can be raised that the clarity with which Berendt claims to recall long stretches of dialogue is suspect, but he covers this with a disclaimer: "Though this is a work of nonfiction, I have taken certain storytelling liberties …" His intention, he says, "has been to remain faithful to the characters and to the essential drift of events as they really happened." There seems no reason to doubt him; certainly there is every reason to celebrate his surprising, wonderful book.

Malcolm Jones, Jr. (review date 28 February 1994)

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SOURCE: "Drag Queens, Death and Dixie," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXIII, No. 9, February 28, 1994, p. 62.

[In the following review, Jones describes Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as an affectionate portrait of Savannah, noting its popularity with Georgia audiences.]

Yankees have always been beguiled by Savannah. When Gen. William T. Sherman cut his incendiary swath through the South in 1864, he spared Savannah and presented it to President Lincoln as a Christmas present. A century later, Esquire columnist John Berendt showed up for a long weekend, wound up living there off and on for eight years and concluded his stay with a book-length bread-and-butter note, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

At first glance, Berendt's nonfiction portrait of Georgia's oldest city looks like anything but a proper thank-you. The characters he celebrates include a drag queen, a piano-playing deadbeat, a man who walks an imaginary dog and another fellow who's said to possess enough poison to spike Savannah's entire water supply. Those are the warm-up acts. At the heart of the book lies a celebrated murder case in which Jim Williams, a socially prominent and autocratic antique dealer, was accused of shooting his young male lover. Savannahians still rehash this decade-old case, and small wonder. No Gothic novelist could concoct a riper tale: the suave but sinister Williams went on trial four times before he won acquittal, while the dead boyfriend was eulogized by local wags as "a walking streak of sex." With all this, Berendt has fashioned a Baedeker to Savannah that, while it flirts with condescension, is always contagiously affectionate. Few cities have been introduced more seductively.

But how does Savannah feel about it? Berendt's book full of anecdotes proves that Savannahians love to talk about their city, but they're not too keen on faint praise from outsiders. In 1946, when Lady Astor came to call, the old downtown was a shambles. She called the city "a beautiful woman with a dirty face." People still bring that up.

Judging by the action downtown at the E. Shaver book-shop one recent afternoon, Savannah is in no mood to quarrel. While Berendt autographed more than 1,200 books, the mood inside and on the sidewalk out front was convivial and gossipy. Matrons in Mercedeses and lawyers from old white-shoe firms hailed their chums with "Are you in the book?" Those who were had the odd habit of volunteering the page number on which they appeared, as though it were a title, or an honorary degree. One nattily coiffed man introduced himself as "Jimmy Taglioli, page 181." He was Jim Williams's barber and he had nothing but praise for Berendt. "He got those people to a T." He would not speak ill of Williams (who died of a heart attack soon after his acquittal). "He was a very nice man. He was just confused about some things."

Williams left Savannah confused about a few things as well. Before the murder, his homosexuality was neither disparaged nor endorsed. But when Williams's open secret hit the front page, the city was forced to reassess the rules and rigging of its social structure. Berendt used the Williams case like a crowbar to get inside Savannah's psyche. He found an inward-looking city determined to keep things "just the way they are." (A list of major exports reads like a bill of lading from colonial times: tobacco, cotton, sugar, clay—clay!—and wood pulp.) Ironically, Berendt discovered, it's this aversion to progress that's preserved the city's character while so much of the country has coasted toward blandness: "Savannah's resistance to change was its saving grace."

A number of the natives are quick to dispute Berendt's conclusions. "He makes too much of Savannah society being closed to outsiders," one said. "Hell, anybody can come here and get into society if they've got the money, the inclination and they're white." Sometimes the reaction is more personal. In a restaurant, Berendt went to say hello to one of the few figures who comes off looking bad in the book. The man drew back: "Don't come near me." Not all the locals are so riled. The best review comes from Gloria Daniels ("I'm on page 259"), housekeeper for Joe Odum, the book's convivial Greek chorus who was infamous around town for conducting historic tours through homes he didn't own. Daniels praises the book and then says fervently, "I got to get Mr. John's address. I want him to do my obituary before I die." No writer could ask for a greater vote of confidence.

Glenna Whitley (review date 20 March 1994)

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SOURCE: "Voodoo Justice," in The New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1994, p. 12.

[In the following review, Whitley discusses Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as a unique combination of true-crime story and travel book.]

The voodoo priestess looked across the table at her wealthy client, a man on trial for murder: "Now, you know how dead time works. Dead time lasts for one hour—from half an hour before midnight to half an hour after midnight. The half-hour before midnight is for doin' good. The half-hour after midnight is for doin' evil…. Seems like we need a little of both tonight."

When he began living part of the year in Savannah, Ga., John Berendt, a columnist for Esquire and a former editor of New York magazine, was looking for—what? Respite from the big city? A charming little Southern town dripping with humidity and history to observe as fodder for a novel? What he found was a cultured but isolated back-water, a town where who your great-grandparents were still matters, where anti-Yankee resentments are never far from the surface and where writers from New York are invited to midnight voodoo ceremonies in graveyards.

The book he has written based on his eight years of living part-time in Savannah is a peculiar combination of true crime and travelogue. The first half of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is about the people Mr. Berendt encountered: Joe Odom, a ne'er-do-well lawyer, piano player and tour guide, who drags antiques and an entourage of eccentrics to reside in one historic house after another from eviction to eviction; the Lady Chablis, a radiant black drag queen who uses the author as a convenient chauffeur to drive her home after her hormone shots; Serena Dawes, whom Cecil Beaton once called "one of the most perfect natural beauties I've ever photographed," now in middle age and given to boas, chiffon and dark green nail polish. And there's her lover, Luther Driggers, an inventor who discovered that a certain pesticide could pass through plastic, making flea collars and no-pest strips possible. After failing to capitalize on his find, he has become a town character who "walks" flies by gluing threads to their backs, and keeps the people of Savannah tense with threats to poison the water supply.

The second half of the book is the story of Jim Williams, a rich antiques dealer and restorer of Mercer House, one of the city's most beautiful historic homes and the site of the Christmas party Savannah's social elite "lived for." Six months after Mr. Berendt arrived, Williams was charged in the 1981 shooting of Danny Hansford, a tempestuous young man known as "a walking streak of sex" to both men and women in town.

Williams, Hansford's employer and sometime lover, pleaded self-defense. The evidence was far from clear-cut. It appeared that Williams may have staged the shooting, moving crucial pieces of evidence to make it look as if he fired his gun only after Hansford tried to kill him. Convicted, he quickly won a new trial when evidence of prosecutorial misconduct was sent anonymously to his attorney.

Before his second trial, besides engaging expensive criminal lawyers to represent him in the courtroom, Williams hired Minerva, the voodoo priestess, to put a curse on the prosecutor. Mr. Berendt makes it clear where Williams thought the better value for the dollar was.

Despite Minerva's ministrations, the second trial also ended in conviction. While Jim Williams ran his antiques business and wrote letters to Architectural Digest from jail, his lawyers managed to persuade the Georgia Supreme Court to overturn the verdict and order yet another trial. Again Minerva went to work, throwing graveyard dirt on the steps of Williams's enemies' homes. After the third trial ended in a mistrial, Williams was retried yet again and became the only person in Georgia history ever tried for the same murder four times. Seven months after finally being acquitted, Williams died, in January 1990.

Mr. Berendt's writing is elegant and wickedly funny, and his eye for telling details is superb. In recounting the tale of Williams's trials, he frequently veers off and includes overheard conversations, funny vignettes and bits of historical and architectural data—a method that a lesser observer might have botched but that works wonderfully here. 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.

The New Yorker (review date 28 March 1994)

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SOURCE: A review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 6, March 28, 1994, p. 115.

[In the following review, the critic offers a laudatory assessment of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.]

Two stories make up [John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story]: the detailed account of a 1981 murder case involving Jim Williams, a prominent citizen of Savannah, and Danny Hansford, a young hustler who died in the study of Williams's antique-laden mansion; and a quirky travelogue devoted to the history, architecture, and citizenry of Savannah, where Berendt lived off and on during the nineteen-eighties. Although the twin narratives are not always seamlessly joined, and the prose suffers occasionally from overripeness, there is plenty of local color here to keep the reader up at night. An inscrutable voodoo practitioner, a bubba-boosting defense attorney, and a cadging piano-bar owner are memorable, but it is in the chapters given over to Chablis, a tough, sassy transvestite performer, that Berendt transforms his book from an amusing document into a work of art. Summing up her burgeoning stage career, Chablis tells the author, "The South is one big drag show, honey, and they all know The Lady. They all know The Doll." Thanks to Berendt, the rest of the country can now know her, too.

Valentine Cunningham (review date 14 August 1994)

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SOURCE: "A Down-Home Twin Peaks," in The Observer, August 14, 1994, p. 16.

[In the following positive review, Cunningham argues that Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is as exuberant and entertaining as most fiction set in the American South.]

John Berendt's first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is American travel-writing at its fictional-factional best. It's a bowl-you-over, enthralled-appalled trawl in the magical depths of Savannah, Georgia, the prettiest surviving corner of the Old South.

An editor and columnist from New York, Berendt knew the Savannah mixture by repute—as most of us do. On the one hand, the lovely old squares and homes that General Sherman did not burn down in the Civil War, the town where the poet Conrad Aiken, a friend of T S Eliot's, is buried and Johnny ('Moon River') Mercer came from. On the other hand, the place where murderous old Cap'n Flint handed Billy Bones the map of Treasure Island before he died shouting for more rum, and where Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah, did her dire worst down on the seashore with a watering can (she was pouring water on a drowning man).

Berendt dropped in for a short visit and got utterly hooked on the vivid contrasts of tone that still mark the place, the farcical striations of class and style and morals that comprise modern Savannah, GA.

The freaky acquaintance Berendt strikes up is as richly eccentric a bunch of gargoyles as any you'll find peopling a Dickens novel. There's Joe Odom, attorney, chequebouncer, piano-player and proprietor of the Sweet Georgia Brown bar, who turns his clutch of rented houses into illegal tourist attractions; his friend Mandy, crowned Miss Big Beautiful Woman (BBW) of Vegas; the black drag-queen The Lady Chablis, so free with cross-dressing advice and with Berendt's motorcar.

Then there's the glum chemist, who made no money from inventing the flea-collar and is said to own a jar of poison enough to kill off the whole town; the lovely Baptist pianist and singer whom Johnny Mercer called the 'Lady of 6,000 Songs' and who never turns down a gig; the gung-ho lawyer who owns the University of Georgia bulldog foot-ball-mascot named UGA the Fourth; the voodoo priestess; the snobby old trouts of the rule-corseted Married Woman Card Club; and many more.

Berendt and his story move easily along and across the social divides. An old-fashioned Southern darkness is not unknown among the antiques-buying, down-town-renovating, black-tie-owning rich folks Berendt gets to know. Anti-Semitism is the foundation of the exclusive Oglethorpe Club. The love of antiques extends with suspicious relish to Nazi relics. But still, money does immunise rather against the city's really seamier stuff. Until, that is, the Jim Williams scandal burst on to the scene.

Wealthy bachelor Williams is one of the chief restorers of Savannah's glorious antebellum housing, and a collector of Fabergé. He gives legendary Christmas parties top socialites would kill to get invited to. And one night in 1981 he shoots his wildly sexy male assistant to death. It's a rich shock to the town's rich. He pleads threats to his life and self-defence. Amidst a great swirl of homosexual scandal, he's found guilty. Four lengthy trials later, each one severely denting the DA's reputation for probity and mightily enriching the doggy-mascot lover and the voodoo priestess, both of whom are enlisted in Williams's cause, this verdict is overturned. But that's in nearby Augusta. There, it seems, juries are less appalled at learning about male hustlers plying the posh South's leafiest squares. Owning antiques in Savannah will never look the same again.

Some of the more enthusiastic American reviewers are hailing [Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story] as a re-run of In Cold Blood. It's not that, Berendt's criminal proceedings stand to Capote's like a muggy-day Dixieland shuffle does to hard-stepping bebop. But these wonderfully fat helpings of murk and malignancy are certainly as satisfying as anything you can find in Deep South fiction and, for that matter, they're as juicily prurient as those superb photo forays into American darkness that Granta magazine goes in for so tellingly.