We're a little enclave on the coast—gloriously isolated," the elderly Miss Mary Harty tells John Berendt on his introductory tour of Savannah sometime in the early 1980s. For the next eight years, Berendt, a former editor of New York Magazine (1977-79) who now writes a column for Esquire, became a part-time resident of this gracious southern city and participant in its complicated and eccentric society. The characters Berendt meets in this nonfiction work are as colorful as any created in novels. The Lady Chablis, an outrageous black drag queen coerces him into chauffeuring "her" home from a black debutante ball. And then there's the sullen inventor with a vial of poison powerful enough to pollute the city's water supply, and a bespectacled voodoo priestess who communes with the dead for good and evil and scoops handfuls of dirt from their grave sites at midnight.
The heart of the book is the sensational trial involving Savannah's premier citizen, antiques dealer Jim Williams, who is charged with killing his companion/handyman, Danny Hansford, "a walking streak of sex."
An accomplished journalist, Berendt has a keen and sympathetic eye, and while Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil sometimes drags as the anecdotes pile up, his intimate portrait of Savannah is impossible to resist. (Random, $23)