Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Discussion)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilLast month the ABM book club read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Did you read it? Did you watch the movie version? Both? As some of you may know Joy The Baker is moderating for us this month. Take it away, Joy:

Joy the bakerI moved from easy, beachy, traffic-congested Southern California to the heart of New Orleans, Louisiana exactly one year ago.  

Moving from the land of Pilates, kale, and beach vibes to the Deep South was all kinds of shocking. The Deep South is an amazing place to visit. History oozes from nearly every building in places like New Orleans, Louisiana and Savannah, Georgia. Every building has a story to tell, every street is full of character, and every local you meet is more than willing to share that story… and maybe even embellish just a bit.  There’s a mixture of pride, history, and downright salacious stories to tell. The South really is a world of its own.  
 
As a visitor to the South, I heard the stories and saw the buildings, but actually living in the South (in the oldest part of New Orleans) has taught me that I know so little. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the South is, the people that make it up, and the real, nitty-gritty history that makes it up.  
 
Enter: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. The quintessential Southern Gothic novel. Berendt weaves a tale of murder, mystery, and the strangest Southern characters you can imagine. The story revolves around the 1981 murder of Danny Hansford, the sometimes assistant, handyman, and lover of Jim Williams, an internationally recognized antiques dealer. Was it self-defense or was it murder? More importantly, how much wealth and influence does it take to get yourself out of a murder conviction in Savannah, Georgia.  
 
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a true crime novel at its roots, but really, it’s a story about Savannah and the characters that give pulse to that city. There’s Emma Kelly the extravagant singer, Lady Chablis the 100% outrageous drag queen, Joe Odom the questionable though very charming musician, and perhaps my favorite, Luther Driggers, the man who has enough poison to kill the entire city of Savannah. All of these characters weave through the city and the story, making it a truly Southern tale.  
 
So now, the questions remain:
 
–  Did Jim kill Danny? And while we’re talking about Jim, is he a sympathetic character at all? Is he funny and charming, or more deceiving and dark? 
 
–  Do we have a sense for what is good and what is evil in Savannah? My eyebrows are raised, and I’m not sure what’s what. 
 
–  Do you wonder how much Minerva really knows?  
 
–  This story makes Savannah seem like such an insular and closed city. Could this story have taken place anywhere else?
 
–  Lastly, how much do you wish that Luther Driggers' glow-in-the-dark goldfish worked?  Such a good idea!
 
Thank you so much for reading along with me!  I hope you got a big deep breath of the South. Let’s talk about the book together! -Joy
 
Credits // Author and Photography: Joy Wilson. P.S. Don't forget that in February we're reading Eleanor & Park, so pick up your copy this week!
  • I think I made the mistake of reading this book straight after reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles (now my all time favourite read). It was a hard act to follow and I feel like I must be giving Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a bit of a hard time because I really didn’t enjoy it very much. Yes there was some great stories and some larger than life characters. I feel like I should have loved it for all the quirks.

    Honestly, at the beginning, I just didn’t get it and it wasn’t until I’d done a bit of YouTube research and discovered it was a true story that it all started making sense.

    Perhaps my issue is that it felt too much like a memoir dressed up as a novel. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if it had just been written as a memoir or if the writer hadn’t written it from his own perspective but as a fictitious character.

    I wonder if anybody else felt the same. Am I being too harsh?

  • Hi Joy and everyone else!

    It really must have been a total culture shock to move to the South, the home of the deep fry! I had a deep fried sandwich for the first time this past summer, and yeah, talk about a world of difference from kale and trying to eat (relatively) healthy, haha.

    As for the book, I absolutely loved it. It had been on my list for years now, but I’d never gotten around to it till last month, so I’m really glad I got the chance to dive in and get to know all these extraordinary characters.

    Yes, Jim killed Danny, but like other commenters have mentioned, I don’t think it was premeditated at all. I think Jim truly loved Danny, but there was a constant clashing of egos (Jim used to having what he wants, Danny not wanting to give in to others’ wishes), not to mention the stark difference of their personalities overall. In the moment he shot Danny, Jim had had enough. Yes, Danny was a confused, undereducated, reckless boy, but he was very mercurial and prone to sudden fits of violence and rage, so he could not have been easy to live with. That said, Jim could be manipulative and mean-spirited, too; he and Danny did have some things in common, even if they viewed the world differently.

    If anything, I think Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil reinforces the idea that no one is inherently good or evil; people are people, and we all have our strong and weak points.

    Honestly, I got the sense that Minerva doesn’t know too much until the very end when it was revealed that Jim died in his study. Was that a liberty taken for the sake of storytelling, or is that how it really happened? Because if so, wow. That’s a lot to chalk up to coincidence, to die after the proceedings against him had finally come to a close, and in that spot, too. Who knows! I don’t think all of Minerva’s spells did a whole lot to help Jim, but I know there are those who are strong believers in voodoo. Super creepy stuff.

    No, this story could only have been set in Savannah. As others have pointed out, the size of the city and the close-knit community serve not only as the setting but as characters themselves. You can’t have one without the other, and everyone knows everyone else and has a tendency to get involved in one way or another.

    I laughed long and hard at poor Luther’s unfortunate goldfish experiment! But I have to agree that I felt bad for the poor things. 🙁 He’s definitely my favorite character, as well. When he confided in Jim and told him about his life and being carried out on his door… That was nothing short of powerful and poignant.

  • I liked this book more than I thought I would. I’ve read a couple of other Berendt books, and while they were well written, they weren’t as engaging as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

    I loved the way Berendt gave us a crazy cocktail of characters, none of whom are what they first appeared to be. For example, Danny, who we only meet briefly and mostly get to know through others’ recollections, is so much more than the poor, wild hustler we first meet. I think this speaks to the notion that the line between good and evil is a moving target. Each of the main characters walk that line between the two, in turns making us love them, cringe at their actions, admonish them, celebrate them.

    I think the movie took a lot of liberties with the story that made it an entertaining, but far less complex and compelling version than the book.

    As for the glow-in-the-dark goldfish, it’s a cool idea and I’m all for ingenuity, but I’m not for tinkering with living organisms for purely aesthetic benefits.

  • This is my favourite movie of all time. SO IN LOVE WITH IT. Probably one of the only movies I have watched more than twice… must be up in the teens now. When it came up on book of the month I was so excited as we had just thrifted it… but shamefully didn’t even crack it open! Will be reading it though… and then probably watch the movie again.

  • I found the story, the setting and the characters really interesting and intriguing, but I sort of felt that the narrating of the story was maybe quite self indulging… I understand he was introducing us to the colourful personalities of the town, but to me, I felt that some details he included, felt quite egotistical and often overshadowed the events. Did anybody else think this?

    Natalie x

  • As a native Savannahian (yes, I know some of the characters!), I can tell you this book is a good depiction of our crazy town. We have our own set of quirky rules, which made it a fabulous place to grow up. We are a city rich with history and our favorite game is one of polite gossip, perfectly embodied in this work. So glad you picked it for this month’s book club!

  • From the very first paragraph of the novel I imagined Jim Williams as a Kevin Spacey type (maybe it’s his performance in House of Cards). This is long before I watched the movie or even IMDBd it. Kind of a random observation, but I think it helps explain why I DID find Williams to be a sympathetic character (I love Kevin Spacey).

    I almost always side with the underdog, which Danny obviously was. He was just a kid, he was poor, he was uneducated, and he was clearly emotionally disturbed. Yet one encounter that really stuck with me was Danny’s trip with the SCAD student to the cemetery (can’t remember her name and have already taken the book back to the library, so I can’t look it up). It is a story from someone other than Williams or someone paid by Williams that depicts Danny as violent, unpredictable, and easily angered–especially when he feels like he’s been “wronged” in some way. Though Williams had most of power in the relationship, Danny was clearly physically stronger and could feasibly have posed a threat to him in that way (whether or not his “health issues” were legitimate). So, I guess that is to say: No, I don’t believe Danny’s death was premeditated. I mean, he could have easily shot him in the kneecap or something and called for help, but still… I found myself siding with Williams.

    Another thing I couldn’t help but think while reading, though it’s a little off topic, is how Williams kind of proves how hard it is to get a fair trial in the US–essentially you have to be a millionaire/have unlimited resources to keep paying lawyers or you will rot in prison, like a lot of people do. There was so much buffoonery and bias in every trial, yet the judge and prosecutor were allowed to keep doing the same things trial after trail. Maybe it’s because I still have the Serial podcast on my mind, but it does seem like people without the resources to keep appealing really don’t stand a chance.

  • I read this after reading Trumen Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ another famous true crime book. I can’t help but wonder if the beauty and almost magical quality of Berendt’s Savannah coloured my view of the murder as a contrast to the harshness of the above.
    The first paragraph in the book is simple stunning. Here’s this man, with his somewhat seedy moustache (not that all moustaches are seedy) sitting amongst all this splendor in this magnificent house, and then Brendt drops that simple line; ‘Jim Williams lived in it all alone.’ Then I spend forever wanting to hate the guy, but I just can’t quite, he’s too something.
    Definitely a fantastically crafted book. Though I do agree with another comment about it dragging at times during the trial. Also I couldn’t handle the movie. I don’t think the production values were enough to bring the world that Berendt paints to life. Ta for the awesome recommend! 😉

  • I really loved this book and read it in about four days! So forgive if I get anything wrong it’s been a couple of weeks!

    1) I don’t think Jim Meant to kill Danny, he comes across relatively rational with thought to his actions and it was possibly a reflex to whatever Danny was threatening him with. He is very definitely a charmer and manipulator but I think that the character has a great level of humour to him so you never really mind that he is so manipulative of his neighbours.

    4) The story could not have happened anywhere else, it’s truly american, southern and classist but requires the small population. Jim knew all the residents and therefore was able to appeal to the better sides of all of them collectively. If not he would most likely of been found guilty of Danny’s murder.

    I watched the movie after reading the book and was sorely disappointed by it’s bland portrayal of the story and its residents. But I found the book compelling and interesting. Great Choice!

  • I’ve just seen the movie, and I liked it! Sorry, I haven’t read the book, but the film is very interesting. It’s set in a part of the US I’d love to visit one day. Best regards from Spain,
    Marta

  • I’ve just seen the movie, and I liked it! Sorry, I haven’t read the book, but the film is very interesting. It’s set in a part of the US I’d love to visit one day. Best regards from Spain,
    Marta

  • So what are your thoughts on New Orleans vs SoCAL??? I have a California love at heart but I am currently located in PHL.

    xo, Lauren @ http://alovelysideproject.com

    My latest style video (about styling the blanket scarf) here: http://youtu.be/OY8cdapkCVI

  • I’m not sure how I really felt about this book. As my first book in the ABM book club it was a good intro to the club but admittedly it took me some time to get into it. Some characters I found great, I really got into their stories but before I was ready they were over!

    I definitely questioned if Jim had really done it, throughout the book I went back and forth between yes and no and I liked that – not knowing, questioning yourself and what you’ve just read.

    I’m keen to watch the movie and see what it’s like in a visual way!

  • I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I do find it interesting that Jim Williams was tried so many times. Honestly, I believe it was self defense. The politics surrounding the murder charge kind of put it in perspective for me. It might’ve been man slaughter but not murder. And I was sympathetic towards Jim. All the while he’s was in jail he had to create a new reality for himself. It saddened me actually. It took a huge toll on his life.

    As for what is good or evil I think it’s open to interpretation. The social ladies might be evil to one another, while the witch doctors try and help people. although dark magic might be a bit evil when it come to reveng. I heard some crazy revenge witch spells when I did a history tour of Savannah.

    So yeah this book had everthing and more! I loved it!!

  • My mom and I both read this book before taking a trip together to Savannah last fall. We visited a lot of the landmarks in the book, including the Mercer house. The house itself is spectacular. The antiques and artwork in there are even better than described in the book. Bonaventure cemetery is beautiful and very peaceful.

    I tried watching the movie twice and couldn’t get past the first ten minutes. I thought it was poorly cast (except for Kevin Spacey as Jim).

  • I admit I have only seen the movie, but would like to read the book someday. It would be nice to get a chance to also visit Savannah 🙂

    http://www.mintnotion.com

  • I both read the book and watched the movie and I was intrigued by how differently they handled the story. I definitely liked the book better. It left you wondering whether Jim had really done it, while the movie was a lot stranger and left me feeling like he was a guilty man who got away with his crime.

  • This book sounds like it is right up my alley! I am new to the site/ book club, but if this is the norm I am in. I moved from the North East to Florida, and the south really is it’s own realm. But it is a beauty, thats for sure! I will definitely be reading this book now. Thanks for the great insight.

    http://leathervslace.com

  • I really wanted to visit Savannah after reading this!
    I was bummed by how long the trial parts dragged on…and on and on…
    I loved how the narrator just went along with everyone’s stories though, letting them be themselves, not scoffing at them or putting them to shame. He just let them be themselves.
    I think Jim killed Danny, but maybe he didn’t really want to. I think he didn’t like his “lover” having a girlfriend and another life to run off to. I think he didn’t like a child really being in control of him. I think he didn’t want to truly admit that he was gay.
    I would have LOVED the glow goldfish!

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