Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil - John Berendt

If someone came up to you, and asked you to recommend — in a city you’ve lived all your life — 10 interesting people they could interview for a book, who would you point to? Celebrities? Achievers? The rich and famous? Well, if you read John Berendt’s Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, you might rethink your list. Because, this extraordinary read redefines ‘interesting’; it traces the lives of wildly eccentric individuals, who’re individually just oddities, but collectively — set inside the overarching frame work of a murder mystery — become gripping. And so we have on record, the intimate details of Lady Chablis, the drag queen, dressing up for her act; the trade secrets of a medium whose spells are bolstered with grave-yard dirt; and the back-story on an old man walking an imaginary dog. This itself sets the book apart as a cracking read; but Berendt isn’t easily satisfied; and so he throws in a dramatic murder, of a young boy of 21, at the hands of one of the wealthiest, most respected men in town…

It works because...

Everything works. No, really, everything does, in the book’s favour, including the title. It could have easily captioned a thriller (and at some level, that’s what it does) except, it’s about the Savannah, Georgia. It starts, unexpectedly, with the description of a man, ‘tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features’. Clearly, Berendt is a non-conformist. And thank goodness he is, because it's his unorthodox way of exploring a city — which would’ve easily lent itself to a ‘history and legacy of the civil war’ kind of narrative — that tempts you to do the same to yours…

But back to the book. After Jim Williams, the sinister gentleman (who turns out to be the son of a barber but makes it big in Savannah), Berendt introduces us to jolly Joe Odom, whose kitchen has a piano. ‘And it was from this room that music and laughter spilled out over the garden walls up and down the street’. Strange people co-habit the house; some without Joe’s knowledge, in his own bed. Berendt takes up residence nearby; and over eight years, he decides to ‘inquire, observe, and poke around wherever my curiosity led me or wherever I was invited’. And the resulting book is a faithful — well almost, as by his own admission, he’s taken ‘certain story-telling liberties’ — recording of those years…

So, should you read the book? Definitely. Why? Because, if there ever was a handbook, on how to look for stories in your own backyard — however small and boondock-y — it is this. And just for that alone, the book is worth several reads…

And this one stays with you…

“I was beguiled by Savannah. The next morning, as I checked out of the hotel, I asked the desk clerk how I might go about renting an apartment for a month or so...

‘Dial bedroom,’ she said. ‘On the telephone. B-E-D-R-O-O-M. It’s the number of a referral service for guest houses. They have listings.’

I suspected that in Savannah I had stumbled on a rare vestige of the Old South. It seemed to me that Savannah was in some respects as remote as Pitcairn Island (…) 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.’