John Berendt

Books: History | Crime | Venice

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1999), The City of Falling Angels (2005)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1999)

I read this book several years ago, after listening to the abridged version as an audio book. I was looking for something that I could read a little bit of and put down, so this seemed a good choice.

Author John Brendt traveled to Savannah on a whim, and liked it so much he began to spend more and more time there, commuting back and forth from New York. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil tells not just of the fascinating people he met there, but also of a sensation murder, and the trial(s) that followed.

The thing that I like best about the story is that it's non-fiction. If someone tried to write this as fiction, you'd probably say the story was too unbelievable. Except that it happened. Joe Odom, The Lady Chablis, Emma Kelly. All individuals living in Savannah that John Berendt met.

The book is actually two different things. The first half of the book is a series of characters sketches of the different people John Berendt met in Savannah. The second half of the book concentrates primarily upon the trial of Jim Williams for the murder of Danny Hansford.

And I can't decide which part I like better.

The strength of this book, however, lies in the storytelling abilities of John Berendt. I wanted to learn more about the people he described. The death and trial may have been interesting, but what made the book were the small stories of the various individuals he met in Savannah.

Rating: 8/10

The City of Falling Angels (2005)

I loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil so when I came across it in paperback, I picked up a copy of City of Falling Angels.

And then proceeded to not read it for several years.

Part of the problem was because I had no idea what to expect. Midnight seemed to center around a murder trial, but I wasn't sure where a book about Venice would go. So Angels sat on the shelf and every couple months I'd think, "I need to read that," and then go back to whatever fiction I was reading.

Then I started reading Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series. Set in Venice, the story is as much about the city as it is about crime and the life of Commissario Brunetti. After reading through most of that series (I've got one paperback book sitting on my shelf, waiting to be savored) I realized City of Falling Angels would be the perfect book to read next, as it would allow me to spend more time in Venice and learn more about the city.

As I often do, I wonder why the hell I'd put off reading this book for so long.

City of Falling Angels is partially about Venice, partially about the fire that destroyed the historic Fenice opera house, and–like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil–partially about the people who were affected by the loss of the Fenice and its subsequent rebuilding. Which was pretty much all Venetians. It's a series of vignettes that come together as a whole to give us a peek into a city that is so alien to the rest of the modern world. A city with no cars, where people walk everywhere.

I was surprised at how much of the city I "recognized" from Donna Leon's books. Both in the names of the places, and in the attitude of the residents.

Be aware that this is not a thriller. This is a meander through a city whose pace is slower than cities in the US. We meet lots of people, and are left to draw our own conclusions about those people, which is one thing I like. Interpersonal relationships and feuds are explained in an unbiased manner, leaving us to draw our own opinions as to the participants. Regardless, I found it a fascinating look at an amazing city.

Rating: 8/10