Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
John Berendt

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This nonfiction novel is about a murder that took place at the historic Mercer House in Savannah, Georgia in 1980, the home of antiques dealer and historic preservationist Jim Williams. Williams, 50, was charged with shooting and killing Danny Hansford, a 21-year-old man who helped Williams with his antiques restoration business. Hansford was also a prostitute and Williams’s part-time lover. Williams was initially convicted, but various appeals and three retrials led to his ultimate acquittal in 1989. In a twist of fate, Williams died in his house eight months later, near where Hansford had fallen.

Berendt’s book was published in 1994, was an immediate best seller, won the 1995 Boeke Prize and was one of the finalists for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. It was made into a movie in 1997, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Berendt, an associate editor for Esquire, moved from New York to Savannah to research the story. He immersed himself in Savannah’s inner circle and his book describes both the people and downtown Savannah’s grand architecture which Williams and others helped to restore to its glory. I enjoyed reading about Savannah and its preserved community, which deliberately resisted commercial build-up. Like any place, Savannah had its politics, social conflicts and power-hungry people. What makes the story even more interesting are the colorful side-characters who play a role in the story, including a voodoo practitioner and Williams’s second attorney, who was a big University of Georgia fan and owner of the school’s bulldog mascot, Uga. Berendt also describes his unlikely friendships with Joe Odom, a fast-talking piano player and schemer and Chablis, a trans showgirl.

Williams himself was a fascinating character. He was well-known in Savannah, particularly for his lavish Christmas parties which were the social event of the year. Williams took particular delight in changing his guest list, removing those who weren’t worthy and adding new guests.

During the trials, Williams shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars for his defense, but followed few of the details of the case, sure he would be acquitted. He was sentenced to life in prison after his first trial. While awaiting appeal, he ran his business from the local jailhouse phone, selling off antiques to pay his lawyers. With his help from jail, Williams’s mother kept Mercer House running, including hosting an elaborate luncheon for Savannah’s high society. Eventually, Williams was released and returned to business-as-usual, including hosting his annual Christmas party.

Even though this isn’t a new book, I’d recommend it for its interesting story and excellent writing. I knew nothing about Savannah and enjoyed envisioning its unique gardens and squares. I also enjoyed reading about the trials and how evidence was introduced, how the jurors reacted and how important this case was for Savannah’s new and very green district attorney.

Have you read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Have you seen the movie? Leave a comment and let me know.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

37 thoughts on “Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

  1. Barbara, I remember when you introduced this book as a to-be-read. Now, you’ve read and reviewed it. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I’ve read it and have seen the movie. Both give a fair representation of the setting and mystique of the characters. I will forever remember the character who put on her makeup while driving into the city. Ha!

    1. Hi Marian – we had a great discussion of the book on my Whodunits Zoom for work. Several people commented on the movie. I would like to visit Savannah based on what I read. If you ever want to join our library book Zooms, you are welcome – we have people from all over, one from Florida!

    1. I’m not sure if it was an Oprah book – I feel like it might have been – I returned my library copy. I’ll have to check. Thanks for the visit!

    1. Hi Priscilla – I thought the book was very good too but I have never seen the movie. Since I work in a library, I can grab it any time – that’s what I call a job perk! Thanks for stopping by 🙂

    1. Hi Jan – I watched an interview about the book and movie and the author said he was disappointed in Kevin Spacey’s portrayal. He realized later that Spacey had listened to the transcript of either the 3rd or 4th trial, during which Williams was on valium for most of his testimony. I did enjoy the book. I may watch the movie someday. Thanks for the visit!

  2. I have read this book and really enjoyed it. I didn’t know anything about Savannah either, and Berendt’s presentation of the story juxtaposed with his own experiences is a fresh, interesting way of setting forth what is essentially a murder mystery. Nice pick.

    1. Hi Lynette. Thank you for reading and commenting. I have grown to enjoy nonfiction like this and thought Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was exceptional. Hope you are doing well 🙂

  3. I’ve been wanting to read this! I visited Savannah a few years ago, and this book is promoted everywhere. It was fascinating to walk through the city and absorb the atmosphere. Thanks for sharing the review — it sounds amazing!

    1. Hi Lisa – yes, Savannah sounds like a great place to visit. I have not traveled much in the south – I’ve only been through the Atlanta airport (doesn’t count!). I hope you enjoy the book when you get a chance to read it. Thanks for the visit 🙂

    1. Hi Darlene – I’ve heard good things about the movie – glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for reading and commenting and for being a loyal visitor! 🙂

  4. I saw the movie before I read the book. I enjoyed the movie when I first saw it, then I read the book and saw the movie again. The book is much better, although the movie includes the real Chablis. She was wonderful and made the film. We also visited Savannah a few years ago. It was fun and the city definitely tries to capitalize on the book, but not to an extreme. It’s a fun city to visit.

    1. Hi Marie – yes I heard that Chablis played herself in the movie – she was a fun part of the book and ironically, the only true and geninue character in the story. I’d like to visit Savannah – it was fun visualizing the squares of the town. Thank you for reading and commenting. So sorry this is such a late reply! 🙂

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