Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Summary

John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil Summary

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story (1994) is a memoir-thriller by writer and Esquire-New York Magazine editor John Berendt. Based in Savannah, Georgia in the early to mid 1980s, the story follows a colorful cast of local characters as they live their daily life during a nationally infamous murder trial. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was adapted to a movie in 1997 and was on the New York Times Bestseller list for over four years, setting the record for most time spent on the list. The book was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Many critics praised it for its atmospheric portrayal of an American city. The work uses more than eight years’ worth of interviews Berendt had with residents of Savannah.

Its themes include community, morality, the American Dream thwarted and realized, and the effects of money.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil opens to a detailed description of Jim Williams, a tall man in his 50s living alone in a gothic-inspired house in Savannah, Georgia. The house, which will later become infamous, is known as Mercer House, after the street on which it resides. The author is visiting from New York and is captured by the character of Williams. Williams is a very successful antique dealer—known around the world—and is deeply knowledgeable about local history, furniture, and art. The author feels lucky to have been invited to his house and gives an intimate description of its tasteful furnishings.

This is well before May 1981, when Williams is arrested for the murder of Danny Hansford, a gay hustler he hired on occasion and developed feelings for. Williams shot Hansford, but what’s unclear is whether or not he acted in self-defense. Williams goes to trial over the possible murder. The book covers four of these trials, which would expand eight years; most of the time Williams spent awaiting trial was spent in prison.

In 1985, the author officially moves to Savannah. He meets a wide array of memorable characters while walking around town, shopping for furniture, or visiting garage sales. Many of these individuals receive as much characterization as the purported murderer and the victim at the center of the story.

At the local apothecary store, Clary’s, Berendt encounters Luther Driggers. Driggers is a character straight out of a Southern Gothic novel. His behavior is peculiar: every morning he’ll order breakfast, look at it, then walk away without taking a bite. He’s depressed, and smokes pot all the time. Berendt befriends him and learns that Driggers wants to poison the town’s water supply.

Later, Berendt meets “Lady Chablis,” an audacious (and bodacious) African-American drag queen known for turning up, uninvited, at socially important events, such as cotillions and debutante balls. Chablis would prefer to have female genitalia, and regularly receives estrogen shots. Chablis introduces herself at a car dealership where Berendt buys a well-used Oldsmobile car; she persuades him to give her a lift home.

In contrast, 70-year-old Emma Kelly is a regionally well-known piano player and singer. She’s genteel, and the perfect representative of a Baptist Georgia Lady. She’s incredibly prolific with songwriting and earned the nickname of “The lady of six thousand songs.”

There’s also Joe Odom, who’s a con artist skilled at playing the piano. Whenever he’s caught stealing money, he uses his considerable charm to explain away the situation and either be forgiven or escape. Odom and Kelly co-own a bar where they’re both featured piano players.

Minerva, a self-declared voodoo priestess, performs magic at a graveyard at midnight. This mysterious ritual is where the book gains its title.

As Berendt builds friendships with the citizens of Savannah, he also learns more about the character of Jim Williams. While Williams presented to much of the world as a straight-laced sophisticate, those who knew him well knew that he was also gay. It’s then quite possible that the murder was fueled in part by a lover’s quarrel.

Friends also recall stories where Williams showed the capacity to occasionally go berserk; they emphasize that his ego and pride were great, and when offended, he couldn’t help himself in berating the offender. For instance, when 50 out of 200 invited people don’t show up at his Christmas party one year, Williams says that those who didn’t show are insecure and are unworthy of being his friend. Williams had also told some friends that his prominence and money in the world could excuse him from any sort of crime.

Williams’ personality wasn’t a good match with the demeanor of Danny Hansford, who had a police record of assault and robbery. This volatile young man also didn’t like being in the subservient role of assistant to Williams. He would not have responded well to Williams’ habit of treating “help” as replaceable and hardly human.

Along with the rest of Savannah, Berendt watches the murder trials proceed. One day, the newspapers report that the defendants have incriminating information: Hansford purportedly paid two people to murder Williams. But very soon, that information is shown to be false.

In all of the murder trials that Berendt witnesses, Williams remains cocksure and calm that he will be exonerated. And sure enough, after a mistrial, Williams was judged (by default) to be innocent.

Williams returns to Mercer House. The book concludes with Williams complaining to Berendt about the media attention, claiming he didn’t kill Hansford, and planning for his next Christmas party.