The last holiday I partook was a week up in Scotland (Lauder) last Christmas. It was sublime; a chalet in the middle of a working farm, bedecked with Christmas trees and lights, and surrounded by various livestock. Being December, it meant there were long evenings in which to amuse oneself, and whilst it was the perfect setting to sit in a hot tub every night, there’s only so much wallowing and Prosecco that can be consumed in a week. I needed a book to read and the novel I'd grabbed and chucked into my rucksack this time was:
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
The book is based on a true story, a crime classic published in 1994, set in a world of highly original literary characters who only required the author to weave their tales together to produce this compelling gothic tale of a Savannah society. Settling back on the veranda of the lodge, mug of tea in hand, I travelled to America to be alarmed, entertained and to laugh out loud with these overtly colourful characters.
The main narrative of the book is the shooting of Danny Hansford. Shots are heard ringing out of the home of respected antiques dealer Jim Williams in the early hours of 2nd May 1981. For a decade, the question that required an answer was whether the shooting was murder or self-defence. Jim Williams maintained that the killing was in self-defence and that Danny (his employee and also a male prostitute) was prone to losing his temper, and, on this occasion, had grabbed a gun that was on display and pointed it at him. He had therefore shot back to protect himself and he testified that the murder had not been premeditated in any way. The complexities around the shooting, and a desire for the truth led to four murder trials taking place; the fourth eventually being moved outside of Savannah so that a different jury could be sworn in.
“there is truth in the Hebrew fable, that the knowledge of Good and Evil brings forth Death.” Alestair Crowley
Whilst the book is based on real events and real people, the narrative has been amended to make this a first-person account of the proceedings that unfolded in 1981. John Berendt didn’t meet Jim Williams until after Jim had stood trail for the first time and been convicted of Hapsford’s murder, and he didn’t move to Savannah until after Williams had stood trail for a second time and once again been convicted of murder.
Many of the episodes Berendt describes are reconstructions of events, so that Berendt can put himself right in the midst of the action. Also, the other characters that he met in real life were all after the murder of Danny Hansford, but the narrative flows better with Berendt having met them before the event. The timeline might be off, but the narratives of those people were pretty much verbatim.
The real star of the show is Savannah herself, bold and eccentric. Berendt describes the rich history of the place and the transformations being undertaken to try to move the city forward, rather than it keeping its talons stuck firmly in the past. It is a fascinating tale and John meets a plethora of remarkable people:
· The Married Woman’s Card Club.
· The young redneck gigolo.
· The recluse with a bottle of poison strong enough to kill the entire community.
· The aging and profane southern belle.
· The Lady Chablis, a flamboyant and entertaining drag queen.
· The arrogant antiques dealer.
· The man walking an imaginary dog so that he will always receive an income from a bequest.
· And Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight.
In fact, the characters are all so unique and intriguing, you get swept along by their tales and forget that the main narrative is that of a real life murder and the loss of a young man’s life.
The book is a true modern classic and after I read it, I began to notice that it appears on many “books to read before you die” type lists. I imagine that it appears because it is a peculiar and distinctive tale, which is part true-crime drama, part travelogue and part insight into the idiosyncratic nature of people. It is a well compiled and charming text, so much so, that you can forgive Berendt for tweaking the facts to make a more compelling novel.
Once I returned home, I checked to see if Berendt had written anymore books. It just so happened that he had and it was about one of my favourite places in the world, Venice. I thought I’d wait until my Easter break before reading it, however, little did I know we'd be under Welsh Govt house arrest for most of 2020 and relaxing holiday breaks would become a thing of the past. I couldn't have known that my first holiday opportunity of the year would end up being in October; nor that it would be during a time of local and then national lockdown. The week of reading from a hot tub overlooking Pendine beach was cancelled. So instead of bubbles and a book in a hot tub, it was gin and a chaise longue at home…and finally, a look into the Stygian underworld of the pretty city of Venezia.
The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt
In a similar vein to his first book, Berendt takes a real-life starting point – in this instance the fire that destroyed La Fenice theatre in 1996 – and weaves a tale of fantastical, extraordinary Venetian characters around it. Who could believe that behind the façade of the world’s most beautiful and romantic city, a world of bribery, corruption and scandal flows around those seemingly tranquil canals? “The key to understanding Venetians is rhythm – the rhythm of the lagoon, the rhythm of the water, the tides, the waves…”
This is an engaging journey around the waterways of a city that has fascinated the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Lord Byron and John Ruskin. Filmmakers throughout time have rushed to Venice to capture its unique allure. Indeed, it was the star of the show on The Souvenir posters that advertised the Joanna Hogg/Tom Burke 2019 film. But behind the captivating images lurks a darker side, a side that gives Venice more colour than its annual Carnivale, and more perplexing conundrums than you’d ever find on an episode of Countdown.“Everyone in Venice is acting,” “Everyone plays a role, and the role changes.”
John Berendt arrives in the city three days after the city’s famous opera house has burnt down during a restoration project…the question on the citizens lips is whether the fire was an accident…or arson. As Berendt tries to find the answer, he is lulled into the stories that make up the various residents of the city as told by:
· The Rat Man of Treviso.
· The American poet Ezra Pound and his mistress Olga Rudge.
· Mario Moro – soldier, fireman, or airman, depending on what day of the week you see him and what uniform he has available to wear.
· Peggy Guggenheim.
· Mayor Massimo Cacciari.
· Countess Marcello, of Save Venice, an American organisation set up to assist with the restoration of Venetian art and architecture.
· Archimede Seguso, the master glassblower famed for his vases depicting the fire.
· Even my own favourite Venetian, the architect and historian Francesco da Mosto makes an appearance as bids are put forth to secure the job of rebuilding the iconic theatre.
Somehow, Berendt has taken people under his wing, he has managed to lull private, unapproachable people and gained their confidence to speak candidly with him. The result is a compelling but humorous book about a complex city, which not only affords a beautiful backdrop for movie makers, but it delivers them an inconceivable story that is told from its very heart.
La Fenice theatre Venice - a still from Joanna Hogg's film
starring Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne