Monday, May 15, 2017

A Witty and Funny Murder Story

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a non-fiction work by John Berendt. The book, Berendt's first, was published in 1994. It became a New York Times Best-Seller for 216 weeks following its debut and remains the longest-standing New York Times Best-Seller.

The book was subsequently made into a 1997 film adaptation, directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, and based loosely on Berendt's story. It was also adapted as a metabook in 2015.

The Book

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is atmospherically Deep South coastal (Savanna, Georgia, Beaufort, South Carolina) and Southern Gothic in tone, depicting a wide range of eccentric personalities in and around the city of Savannah, Georgia.

The story, unsettling and real, broke down the idea of the quintessential phenomenon of a true American city—only to reveal its quirks: its man walking an invisible dog; its voice of the drag queen; a high-society man in its elite community—all that somehow, unravels a murder mystery. Virtually seeming like a novel and reading like a tale, the non-fictional story is about the real-life events surrounding the murder.

The central narrative concerns the killing of Danny Hansford, a local male prostitute (characterized as "a good time not yet had by all") by an important Savannah socialite, respected antiques dealer Jim Williams. This results in four murder trials, with the fourth ending in acquittal after the judge finally agreed to a change of venue to move the case away from the Savannah jury pool. The book describes Williams' version of the killing, which is that it was in "self-defense"—the result of Hansford, who is prone to fits of rage, shooting at Williams with a gun that is on display, and Williams shooting back in self-defense—and not murder, pre-meditated or otherwise by Williams. The death occurred in Williams' home, which was originally built by West Point graduate and US Army and CSA Colonel Hugh W. Mercer, grandfather of songwriter and Savannah native Johnny Mercer, and grandson of Hugh Mercer of Pennsylvania, who was a hero of the Battle of Trenton and adjutant to General George Washington of the Continental Army.

The book highlights many other notable Savannah residents, as well, including The Lady Chablis, a transgender woman and local drag queen and entertainer. Chablis provides both a Greek chorus of sorts as well as a light-hearted contrast to the more serious action.

Real Life Events

The book's plot is based on real-life events that occurred in the 1980s and is classified as non-fiction. Because it reads like a novel (and rearranges the sequence of true events in time), it is sometimes referred to as a "non-fiction novel" or "faction", a subgenre popularized by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer.  (Booksellers generally feature the title in the "true crime" subsection.)

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