Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
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.
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