First published in 1994, John Berendt’s account of the 1981 killing of 21-year-old Danny Hansford in the city of Savannah, Georgia by local antiques dealer Jim Williams, ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ received massive success on its debut, remaining a New York Times best-seller for over two hundred weeks. What made William’s case stand out from the crowd of other crimes in the Southern states at that time, was that Jim Williams was tried for the murder no less than four times; his first three trials having resulted in acquittals.
The Folio Society edition of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
I had been aware of the title for some years but as is the story of my life, hadn’t quite got around to reading it yet. This new edition by the Folio Society, published 25 years after the original, is supplemented by an introduction from Berendt, as he reflects on the changes he has seen in Savannah over the past quarter of a century, as well as noting the reaction to the book subsequent to publication (Clint Eastwood turned it into a film only three years later).
If I have ever read a work of non-fiction that featured characters so colourful and a narrative so creatively told I had to remind myself what I was reading was not in fact the work of someone’s imagination, it was this. In fact, some sources claim the work to be a ‘non-fiction novel’ due to its chronological re-writing of events; but I don’t consider the artistic licence used by Berendt to take anything away from the general telling of the crime and subsequent judicial process . That said, if you wanted to precise and forensic account of the case, this would not be it. What we get here is an first-hand impression of events, rather than a focus on criminal or legal details (although we do get enough of that to bolster the story being played out). I say ‘first-hand’ because what makes this particular true-crime tale the more engaging is that magazine writer and editor Berendt was living in Savannah at the time the events took place and had relationships (albethey of a journalistic nature) with many of the local residents, including Jim Williams himself.
When I initially finished the book, I felt a sense of disappointment the reasons for which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Further exploration revealed that I had read it expecting it to fit firmly in the true-crime genre; that expectation, rightly or wrongly, informed my reading of the whole book. What transpires is that actually, the crime which sits at the very centre of ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ sort of becomes inconsequential to everything else really. More accurately, it is the vehicle by which we get to the really interesting stuff which, in my opinion is the cast of characters we meet; for instance, Lady Chablis, the transgender club singer. The character most looming though has to be the city of Savannah itself. John Berendt has the rich gift of writing in a way that immerses the reader so deeply in a place that even if the reader is completely unfamiliar with the geographical setting of a story, afterwards they have the sense that they have visited the place themselves and know something of its sights, smells and atmosphere.
I would argue that to classify this book as true-crime is to do the reader a bit of a disservice. It is so much more and other than that. It is a story rich with human life and how the places we occupy become imbedded in our very natures. The book left me wanting a bit, but that’s because Berendt had given me so much of Savannah already that it simply left me desperate for more. It felt like he whet my appetite but then got distracted by the need to tell the story of Jim Williams, which in my opinion was the least interesting story to tell.
As expected, this Folio Society edition doesn’t disappoint in the quality category. It is expertly bound and printed using the high gsm paper that makes their editions so special. The pages of text are interspersed with black and white photographs; the subjects of which are buildings and scenes from the locale and many being from photographer, Jack Leigh, whose ‘Bird Girl’ image also adorns the front cover, as in the original 1994 edition and which has become somewhat synonymous with this book. The internal photographs are printed on the same paper type as the other pages of the book which would have perhaps benefitted from an upgrade to glossy photographic paper to make this edition feel less like an average paperback. As always, I like the feel of a hardback but other than the type of binding, I actually don’t have an awful lot of praise for Folio’s £44.95, 25thanniversary edition of this work. That said, I don’t have any particular criticisms either. I would have just liked a little more.
The Folio Society edition of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, including a new introduction by the author, is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com
John Berendt was born in Syracuse, New York, to parents who were both writers. He studied English at Harvard University before moving to New York City in 1961. He became associate editor of Esquire and was later editor of New York magazine. Following a lengthy career working as a columnist, Berendt published Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 1994 and became a best-selling author. His second book, The City of Falling Angels, was published in 2005.
Reviewed by Anna Jeffery
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