I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I had John Berendt’s book, The City of Falling Angels, on my bookshelf for over a year before finally picking it up. Then I chanced upon this book last week on a discount price in one my favorite secondhand bookstores in Davao, and I read it in a breeze. Now that I’ve finally read it, I must say how truly wonderful and exciting it is. The characters are so eccentric and bizarre I had to keep reminding myself that these are real people. Berendt did an excellent job recreating this true crime story into something so readable, and delicious.
Berendt seems to be the perfect example of a writer being in the right place at the right time — he appears in Savannah as a feature writer to cover a lavish holiday party hosted by the extravagant antiques dealer Jim Williams, at the famed Mercer House, and is swept up in a murder and ensuing trial. There is no great mystery associated with the murder itself, everyone knows someone pulled the trigger, and yet Berendt manages to write a colorful, suspenseful page-turner that really captivates the imagination like few other “nonfiction novels” ever have.
Basically, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a true crime novel, but it is written with warmth, humor, and a remarkable eye for detail. Berendt takes you behind velvet curtains and antique walls into a society where pedigree is based as much on lineage, wealth, and power as on quirky southern traditions like knowing how to serve a fine platter of tomato sandwiches.
This is one of those books whose main character is its setting. Savannah, Georgia, is such a glorious and mysterious backdrop for such an intriguing storyline — and Berendt fleshed it out so magnificantly, that you could tell Savannah breathes and lives as easily as those who live there. Mostly this book is about a rich antique dealer, Jim Williams, who was accused of murder. However, it is not an ordinary murder case — all sorts of twists come out of the woodwork for this one, making this book not only a crime story, but a mystery as well. Surrounding the murder aspect are the citizens of Savannah that the author comes in contact with: Luther Driggers, a former pesticide employee, who has a vial of poison potent enough to kill every one in the county; Chablis, the potty-mouthed drag queen and performer; Joe Odom, a modern vagrant who uses his home(s) as a tourist stop; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who uses roots, herbs, and graveyard dirt to weave her magic spells.
Ultimately, the book works on many levels. It is an effective chronicle of a series of high-profile trials, an extended travelogue in which the colorful city of Savannah stands out as perhaps the star of the book, and a profile of Savannah’s aristocracy, in which the reader understands Williams’ sense of wanting to belong despite considerable obstacles. (Williams was not “old money”, and therefore not really accepted in the city’s highest circles, and as the trial revealed he was a homosexual). Most of all, the book is a smorgasbord of colorful characters (none more compelling than the Lady Chablis) and bizarre situations that create a timeless sense of Savannah as a mysterious, alluring city. You encounter men walking imaginary dogs, a voodoo priestess performing odd rituals in a graveyard, and a lawyer who takes off with the UGA mascot for the annual Florida VS Georgia college football game, in the midst of the biggest murder trial of his career.
The language of the book is effortless, almost as if it wrote itself, which makes sense when you consider the author came from a magazine background and started out writing a “fluff” features piece. Berendt thankfully avoids the excessive crime scene minutae and endless details of minor courtroom tactics that sometimes bogs down other true crime books, and keeps you focused on the sense of place, and the colorful characters, that are the true focus of his story. I enjoyed it thoroughly, read it very quickly and was almost sorry to put it down. I highly recommend it if you like high class southern sleaze.