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Issue 49 - City of vice and virtue

Whisky Magazine Issue 49
July 2005

 

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City of vice and virtue

Jefferson Chase discovers the contradictions of Savannah, Georgia, in John Berendt's modern classic Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

The ambiguity starts with the title.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – the product of a protracted love affair between New York journalist John Berendt and the city of Savannah, Georgia – tiptoes between genres like a curious yet reverent visitor to a cemetery in the middle of the night.

It's a true crime story married to a travelogue crossed with a comic novel – and an intoxicating read to boot.

Berendt first visited Savannah on a lark in 1982, and he found himself inexorably drawn to the city, spending extended periods there over the course of the following decade. Part of the attraction, as the first pages of Midnight make clear, is the odd-ball cast of local characters.

One of them is a dandyish rare antiques dealer named Jim Williams, who has an idiosyncratic take on the class system of the Old South: “What I enjoy most,” he said, “is living like an aristocrat without the burden of having to be one. Blue bloods are so inbred and weak.

All those generations of importance and grandeur to live up to. No wonder they lack ambition. I don't envy them. It's only the trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile – the fine furniture, the paintings, the silver – the very things they have to sell when the money runs out. And it always does. Then all they're left with is their lovely manners.” It's Williams himself, though, who is trapped – in a murder investigation after he shoots to death a homosexual lover.

The suspense here is whether the vag...

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