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

Book Facts

Title: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Author: John Berendt
Pages: 386
Published: 1994
Available Formats: Paperback/Kindle/Audiobook
Genre: Nonfiction/Literature
Setting: Savannah, Georgia
Overall Rating: 3/5


From the back of the book;

Genteel society ladies who compare notes on their husbands’ suicides. A hilariously foul-mouthed black drag queen. A voodoo priestess who works her roots in the graveyard at midnight. A morose inventor who owns a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill everyone in town. A prominent antiques dealer who hangs a Nazi flag from his window to disrupt the shooting of a movie. And a redneck gigolo whose conquests describe him as a “walking streak of sex.”

These are some of the real residents of Savannah, Georgia, a city whose eccentric mores are unerringly observed – and whose dirty linen is gleefully aired – in this utterly irresistible book. At once a true-crime murder story and a hugely entertaining and deliciously perverse travelogue, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evilis as bracing and intoxicating as half-a-dozen mint juleps.

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Overall Rating: 3/5

I’ll start my review by saying that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is anything but my type of book. I don’t read true crime. I don’t read many things that are considered “literature”, and memoirs are about as far as I usually venture into nonfiction. That said, I enjoyed this book a lot.

When I picked it up I didn’t realize it was nonfiction. It does say it is a “true-crime murder story” on the back cover, but the rest of the description overshadowed that. The “hilariously foul mouthed black drag queen”, “voodoo priestess”, and “bottle of poison powerful enough to kill everyone in town” made me think fiction. I started reading it and still did not realize it was nonfiction. That’s how entertaining the writing style is. I only noticed the nonfiction classification in tiny font on the back by chance when I picked it up one day.

This book paints an interesting picture of Savannah, Georgia. That picture may not be the most objectively accurate. It’s a picture where everybody knows everybody else, and people get away with or are convicted of murder based on popularity alone. This could be true for the well-to-do, but it doesn’t seem believable as a total generalization. For entertainment value the setting is compelling. I do question the authenticity, as this is supposed to be a work of nonfiction.

The cast of characters fascinating and unique. Our narrator, the author, is present in his own story at the beginning, but fades to be a casual observer in these people’s lives. The characters he describes seem excessively dramatized for a nonfiction work. Though quirky and entertaining, many of them are rather flat and don’t evolve as the story unfolds. Joe Odom is a total charmer, which is how he gets away with writing so many bad checks. Lady Chablis is a caricature of herself, the exact stereotype of what a drag queen would be. That character with the bottle of poison? So inconsequential to the overall plot, I don’t even remember his name. These characters are entertaining and take up a lot of real estate within the pages, but often bare no real consequence to the central conflict.

In fact, I wasn’t even sure what the central conflict was until I reached part two, on page 170. The one character who was mysterious enough to keep me hanging on did turn out to be central to the plot. The main character, Jim Williams, is more reserved and serious than the rest. I wouldn’t say he is a truly dynamic character. His personality and secrets unfold in a way that gives the impression of a dynamic character.

Final Word

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I wanted to give it 4/5 stars as a gut reaction, but I will give it 3 out of 5 stars with the following disclaimers;

  • If you are a stickler for 100% accuracy in nonfiction this might not be the book for you.

  • The plot goes on countless (entertaining, yet irrelevant) tangents and drags at times. We don’t even know what the central conflict is until 170 pages in.

  • The characters, though entertaining, are often irrelevant to the overall plot and rather flat.

  • If a drag queen who is a walking stereotype bothers you, this isn’t the book for you.

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Further Reading

After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Marilyn J. Bardsley

If you are interested in reading more about the case Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil centers around, this book by Marilyn J. Bardsley is a more fact based account of the trial.

Unlike John Berendt’s book that is primarily an entertainment book focused on eccentric characters that once lived in Savannah, Marilyn Bardsley’s book is biographical and almost completely focused on the life and trials of Jim Williams.

This book includes photos, graphics, interviews and trial transcripts related to the case. It is a different approach than John Berendt’s original work.

Lawyer Games: After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Dep Kirkland

This book offers yet another perspective into the story of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It is written by the Chief Assistant DA involved in the trial. This is another fact and evidence based account. The description makes it clear what side the author takes on Jim William’s guilt in the case.

 His firsthand knowledge allows him not only to deeply analyze the murder case but also to expose the legal mischief spawned when a defendant facing unshakable physical evidence possesses almost unlimited funds.

Reviews say that this is a book meant to persuade readers that Jim Williams was guilty. One reviewer complains that it becomes a bit snarky after a while. It could be an interesting read if you find yourself interested in the case and want to see it examined from another angle.

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