Like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good of Evil not only deals with the recounting of a genuine and notorious true-life crime story, it also serves to situate its author into the narrative of that crime story. And, like Truman Capote, that meta-narrative is also impacted by the fact that the writer who has come to tell the tale is viewed as a cultural interloper. The disconnect that exists between the personality of the writer and the personality of the community in which the notorious murder took place becomes an issue which becomes part of the fabric of the larger narrative.
But whereas both In Cold Blood and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil are both semi-journalistic investigative reportage into the murderous nightmares insinuating their way into the respective communities, Berendt’s account diverges in a significant manner from Capote’s non-fictional novel primarily by virtue of his focus of interest moving in the opposite direction from that which gripped Capote. For Capote, the murder in a small Kansas town was about the interlopers like himself. Berendt, by contrast, delivers a story which radiates outward from the principal players in the murder to investigate the metropolitan milieu populated by characters of ever-increasing eccentricity.
Indeed, a very strong argument can be made that the single most important character to be found within the pages of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is neither the victim nor killer, but the city of Savannah itself. By the time one reaches the final page, his description of this city as a place where “gentlemen own their own white tie and tails” becomes less of a gently scornful swipe and more of a statement of plain fact. Savannah is weird; there’s no getting around it and Berendt comes to enjoy revealing that weirdness every bit as much as Savannah’s residents enjoy exhibiting it. This portrait of locale stands in stark contrast to the Holcomb, Kansas delineated by Capote in stark prose devoid of any of his inherent eccentricity of In Cold Blood. Matching form to content, the Holcomb of post-World War II seems to have changed in almost no noticeably away from the Holcomb in the middle of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Truman Capote must’ve stood out like a sore thumb wrapped in a vivid pink bandage in Holcomb, but then again Capote would have stood out just about anywhere outside of New York, Hollywood and San Francisco. John Berendt, on the other hand, could have visited any number of small town and large metropolises across the country without anyone mistaking him for an outside. One of the places not within that string of destinations just happens to be Savannah, where Berendt’s arrival could not help but situate his outsider status as part of the narrative. Savannah reeks of antebellum fantasies of old world aristocracy where public enemy number one goes by a single name no matter where above the Mason-Dixon line he actually hails: Yankee.
Ah but Berendt wasn’t just your average northerner. He was as Yankee as it gets down South. Not only did he come from New York even worked for a magazine called New Yorker. Anywhere else in Dixie, Berendt’s seeming intent to pull back the veil of southern gentility to reveal the ugliness that can lead to murder may have witnessed him at least metaphorically running out of town for his very life. What saved Midnight in the Garden of Good of Evil was Savannah’s reputation as one of the most genuinely hospitable communities in the Deep South. The city’s nickname of Hostess City of the South proved true enough to welcome Berendt into its homes with the provision that he never be all0wed to forget he remained and would always remain an outsider. Fortunately for Berendt, that outsider status would prove to be integral to gaining him access into those homes as well as the key to making his story stronger.
Were it not for his exotic qualities as a Yankee from the Big Apple, it is questionable that the author could have gained access to such vitally important threads woven into the fabric of his book as the Married Women's Club, the Black Debutantes' Ball, and a certain legendary Christmas party. These experiences and others became instrumental in moving the focus of the story away from the committing of the crime and its aftermath and toward providing a greater insight in the background of the events leading to the moment the murder would be committed. By moving back in time to present a situational progression toward one person’s decision to murder another, the book thus becomes one in which a mystery is created from a detective story where the ending is already known. The mystery becomes through Berendt’s deft handling of associational techniques the question of what, exactly, could possibly have happened to set off a chain of events that in retrospect comes to seem inexorable and unavoidable.
Of course, just as with Capote’s book, it certainly does not hurt that the suspect in the murder appears to be every bit as the charming outsider that their authors wind up being. And just as Capote would appear to come identify with one of the killers in his book a little too closely, the reader cannot help but wonder if perhaps Berendt get a little too close to one person in particular due to his shared experience as outsiders amid eccentric aliens. Berendt can certainly be forgiven for relishing the weirdos that populate his novel since it takes most of those readers will enjoy them equally as much. An interesting choice, however, and perhaps an unexpected one, is Berendt adopting a first-person perspective to narrate his novel. The result is that the experience of seeing Berendt as just one more eccentric moving within Savannah’s large population of oddballs. One reason for this choice may be to heighten his situation as an outsider, of course, but there may be an entirely different strategy at work.
Through the conscious choice of making himself a character within the larger narrative who saunters slowly up and down the wide boulevards of Savannah alongside the many different eccentrics from all strata of Savannah’s population, Berendt becomes part of the collective mindset of the city. A collective mindset that were all utterly convinced—regardless of their placement within that social and economic strata—that Joe Williams would never be convicted of murder regardless of whether he did or not. A mindset firmly entrenched within the historical narrative enough to know that in a society like Savannah’s, the combination of money and charm can even trump the disadvantage of being an interloper.
And Joe Williams was flush with both.