There is such a thing as a non-fiction novel. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is just such a thing. The events in this story did happen. Jim Williams really was tried four times in the State of Georgia for the murder of Danny Hansford. The cast is a chorus of insanely nutty characters: a foul-mouthed black drag queen, a female voodoo doctor, a charming lawyer who holds a perennial open house (there is always someone cutting hair in the kitchen) and breaks more laws than his clients and a gay antiques dealer who manages his antique business from jail, refusing to let murder charges defeat him. But the true star of the novel is the elegant garden city of Savannah.
James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, personally designed the square layout of the city.
“In effect, the city would become a giant parterre garden. Oglethorpe built the first four squares himself. ’The thing I like best about the squares,’ Miss Harty said, ‘is that cars can’t cut through the middle; they must go around them. So traffic is obliged to flow at a very leisurely pace. The squares are our little oases of tranquility.’”
And traffic does flow at a leisurely pace. This is good because, according to the author, Savannahians believe road trips through their city require serious alcohol-laced hydration.
The people who loved this city tried their best to maintain an oasis of southern life-past. The story is littered with examples of outsiders who tried to update the city. The locals would have none of it. They liked their social traditions, especially where formal dress was a requirement.
The weather itself, warm and leisurely, helped sustain the slow pace Savannah is known for.
“Camellias, jonquils, and paper whites had bloomed in December and January. Wisteria and redbuds had followed, and then in mid-March the azaleas burst forth in gigantic pillows of white, red and vermilion. White dogwood blossoms floated like clouds of confectioner’s sugar above the azaleas. The scent of honeysuckle, Confederate jasmine, and the first magnolia blossoms were already beginning to perfume the air.”
In an afterward, the author uses garden terms to describe this unique city.
“For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.”
Berendt’s non-fiction novel may depict a languid southern city. His book is anything but. It’s a page-turner of oddballs, turmoil, gossip and, of course, good and evil.