'Evil' yields plenty of good Read on: Author John Berendt and Savannah, Ga., are basking in the success of his best seller.

November 27, 1995|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

As of yesterday, John Berendt's book, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," is no longer on the New York Times best-seller list.

But don't cry for him, Savannah. His account of an infamous murder trial in that Georgia coastal town had an 89-week ride on the list and has sold more than 700,000 copies to date. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and winner of the Southern Book Award. Tourism is going up, up, up in Savannah. And today, he starts a 13-city book tour, his second, with a reading at Baltimore's Bibelot at 8 p.m.

"I think it's unprecedented," he says of the second tour, by telephone from his New York apartment. "Random House got the idea when we did a concert at Lincoln Center as part of the New York Jazz Festival, a Johnny Mercer concert for 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.' We had Gerry Mulligan, Bobby Short, Margaret Whiting."

A concert? With Gerry Mulligan and Bobby Short? One begins to understand why the early comparisons with "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's groundbreaking account of a Kansas murder, didn't really get to the heart of "Midnight's" appeal. It's impossible to imagine the "In Cold Blood" concert, or the "In Cold Blood" Gray Line tour.

For the uninitiated, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is the true story of Jim Williams, a Savannah antiques dealer tried for murder four times in the shooting death of his lover, Danny Hansford, "a walking streak of sex." Finally acquitted, Williams died of an apparent heart attack five years ago.

Mr. Berendt, a longtime magazine writer and editor, had settled in Savannah in 1985. He knew about the murder and planned to make it the centerpiece of his story, but he also wanted to write more than a true crime book.

The result, written over seven years, was hailed by critics and embraced by readers. The New York Times Book Review noted it "may be the first true crime book that makes a reader want to call a travel agent."

Jim Williams and Danny Hansford are only two of the many memorable figures in the book. With a leisurely pace that fits the locale, Mr. Berendt introduces readers to, among others, the always charming, always scamming Joe Odom; a man who walks an invisible dog; Luther Driggers, who likes to talk about poisoning the town's water supply; and Lady Chablis, a transsexual drag queen who insists she's going to play herself in the movie version.

Is she? "That is up to the casting director," Mr. Berendt says. "However, she does have a book coming out, called 'Hiding My Candy.' "

Of course, there were quibbles. While the book always sold well in Savannah, some locals didn't like the book at all. Lee Adler, a prominent Savannahian, once refused to shake Mr. Berendt's hand in front of a reporter; he later apologized, Mr. Berendt says.

And some critics were uncomfortable with the artistic license taken by Mr. Berendt. In the opening scene, for example, he describes himself talking to Williams in his home, the mansion known as Mercer House, when Hansford stalks in. But Hansford was shot in 1981, long before Mr. Berendt met Williams.

"The only fictional character in the book is the narrator, me, until I catch up with myself midway through the book," Mr. Berendt says. "I felt that was a legitimate license to take. The book is 99 percent true and 1 percent exaggeration."

Meanwhile, Savannah is a boom town and everyone credits The Book. According to a recent report from Bloomberg Business News, "Midnight" boosted the city's tourism industry, creating jobs and new businesses. Hotel room-tax collections were up 18.3 percent in one quarter, while 1994 convention bookings went up 40 percent.

Mr. Berendt still loves Savannah and visits often. But he's leery of following up "Midnight" with a book about another city, especially a Southern one, although some Nashville citizens remain convinced he is doing just that. (Earlier this year, he wrote for the New Yorker about a man there who likes to wear women's clothing.) The only thing he knows about his next book is that he plans to start one eventually. Right now, he's still enjoying the pleasurable fall-out from "Midnight."

"I really had tremendous luck, falling into those characters and that story and that city," he says, a little wistfully. "The raw material was triple A, A-plus."

John Berendt

What: Reading from his best-seller, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"

Where: Bibelot, 1819 Reisterstown Road

When: 8 p.m. today

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