Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt: B+

From the back cover:
Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self defense? The question captivated the city’s Society, high and low, for over a decade.

John Berendt, a veteran New York magazine writer and editor, traveled to Savannah and, having become enchanted by this isolated remnant of the Old South, made it his second home. Over a period of eight years, he encountered the city’s eccentric characters, became involved in bizarre adventures, and closely followed the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.

A literary account of a crime + old houses + the South = a book with my name all over it.

It’s kind of hard to categorize Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, since it’s not a straight-up account of a murder. Instead, Berendt takes his time in bringing the “beguiling” city of Savannah to life, from its high society—the rich businessmen and who belong to the yacht club, the well-bred married ladies who gather to play cards every month, et cetera—to those who society would disdain, like a drag queen with massive attitude and a practitioner of black magic. Fully the first half of the book is the author getting introduced to various colorful characters and hearing tales about crazy parties and ancient yet salacious scandals that haven’t been forgotten. It’s all very interesting to read about—reads like fiction, really—but the picture Berendt paints makes me glad I don’t live there or know any of these people!

The crime part comes in when Jim Williams, a man who wasn’t born into wealth but earned it through his own savvy for antiques, shoots and kills his violent-tempered lover. He claims it’s a case of self-defense, though there are certain pieces of evidence that would indicate otherwise. Williams ends up getting tried for the crime four separate times on account of various errors and hung juries, and in desperation ends up turning to a black magic practitioner, Minerva, for help. It’s from an expedition to a graveyard with Minerva that the book derives its title.

I found it interesting that at first, Williams comes across as very urbane and polished and when he first consults Minerva, he’s pretty dismissive about what she’s doing. As time wears on and he grows more desperate, he begins to believe in things like curses and ghosts bearing grudges more and more. It’s like you’re seeing him come a bit unhinged before your eyes. I shan’t spoil the outcome because, really, the book reads rather like a mystery. We know who did it and how, but the mystery is whether he’ll eventually be acquitted and allowed to return to his posh life or if he’ll finally go to prison for good.

I might’ve rated the book more highly if there weren’t so many characters (or, I suppose, residents) who rubbed me the wrong way, but ultimately, I found it to be both well written and entertaining.

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