“An idea was beginning to take shape in my mind, a variation of my city-hopping weekends. I would make Savannah my second home. I would spend perhaps a month at a time in Savannah, long enough to become more than a tourist if not quite a full-fledged resident. I would inquire, observe, and poke around wherever my curiosity led me or wherever I was invited. I would presume nothing. I would take notes.
Over a period of eight years I did just that, except that my stays in Savannah became longer and my return trips to New York shorter. At times, I came to think of myself as living in Savannah. I found myself involved in an adventure peopled by an unusual assortment of characters and enlivened by a series of strange events, up to and including murder. But first things first.”
Man, it must be great being John Berendt. He can just decide, seemingly on the spur of the moment, to move to another state or country and spend years living there, apparently doing nothing except wandering around meeting all the weird locals and writing stories about them, which he then cobbles together into a loosely-connected narrative and publishes for lots of money. I am extremely jealous of this. (and, on the off chance that John Berendt is reading this review: Mr. Berendt, consider this my application to be your sassy young assistant. Can we go to Prague next?)
When I saw the movie version of this book, I had a hard time believing that it was based on a nonfiction book. Surely real life could never work out so perfectly: a big-city writer moves to a close-knit Southern town full of eccentric rich people, and then one of those eccentric rich people shoots his gay lover after an argument that no one witnesses, leaving a suspicious crime scene and even more suspicious circumstances. Also there’s a Voodoo priestess and a drag queen, because why the hell not.
Even after finishing the book, I still have a hard time believing that Jim Williams actually existed, that he actually shot his lover, that he actually spent eight years in and out of court trying to prove that he didn’t plan to murder anyone, and that at the end of his ordeal he died suddenly in the same room where he shot the man, in the same place he was standing when the original argument occurred. Surely you can only make this shit up, can’t you?
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a fun read. The characters are endlessly quirky and odd, the events Berendt witnesses have to be read to be believed, and the murder mystery that the book revolves around will delight any detective novel fan. Even Berendt himself emerges as a minor character in the story – even though he refrains from giving his opinions of the events or people described, he’s a constant presence in the story, describing his conversations and actions as if the book really is just a fictional account narrated in first-person. Many of the book’s chapters, it should be said, don’t relate at all to the murder mystery, but they were so interesting it didn’t even bother me. (perhaps I should have read this book before trying Berendt’s newest book, The City of Falling Angels, because I remember being frustrated that more chapters didn’t relate to the Fenice fire – but then again, they weren’t as good as the stories in Midnight)
And Now A Note on the Movie: I won’t say it’s better than the book, but it’s a pretty good adaptation. Jude Law was a great choice for Danny, as he’s a perfect mix of sexy and unstable, and Kevin Spacey was very well cast as Jim Williams. Two gripes only, and they relate: the character of Mandy in the book is a minor one, and although she’s blonde in the book, mentions that she was Miss BBW Las Vegas – so not the skinny blond piece portrayed in the movie. Also, she and Berendt’s character are never even close to romantically involved in the book because, as I learned from another review, John Berendt is gay. I really really wish they had kept this detail in the movie (or rather, added it, since Berendt makes no mention of his own sexuality in the book) because first it would have eliminated the stupid romance subplot, and also because it would have put John Cusack’s interactions with Lady Chablis in a much more interesting light. But we can’t have everything.
Verdict: four out of five stars