BOOK REVIEW / Georgian splendours: 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' John Berendt: Chatto, 10.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THERE is a very bad moment when the expectant reader of this English edition of an American non-fictionbestseller spots on the back cover the admission from Peter Mayle, the writer responsible for A Year In Provence: 'I wish I'd written it.'

Already sinking fast, the heart goes right under when the early chapters turn out to concern a media type - John Berendt, magazine editor and columnist - escaping the New York rat-race to chill out in the charming Southern fastness of Savannah, Georgia. But, thankfully, this book is not A Year In Savannah: a townie's jolly put-down of the locals. Berendt stayed eight years, and chanced upon the sinister and twisty murder case which turns his narrative into a rare travel book with as many actual shocks as culture shocks.

For the first 166 pages, Berendt is more or less the standard travel writer, hanging around town bagging and tagging the local characters. Admittedly, these are generally unusual species, including several never quite caught before. There is William Simon Glover, who walks Savannah's streets shouting to an imaginary dog to follow him. Glover was left 10 dollars a week from the estate of a friend in exchange for walking his late mate's dog. By going through the motions despite the dog's death, he is allowed by the local judge still to collect his bequest. Meanwhile, across town from the invisible dog, Luther Driggers is trying to make goldfish more visible at night by feeding them fluorescent dye. This feat, if achieved, will light up a life blighted by Luther's earlier failure to patent the flea collar.

Everyone Berendt meets is either kooky or spooky. Here comes Mandy, winner of the Big Beautiful Woman contest, who has learned to drive with her knees while manicuring her nails at the wheel. There goes Jim Williams, an antique dealer living in Savannah's grandest mansion (for which Jackie Onassis reputedly offered dollars 2m), with his cute houseboy, Danny, and his collection of Nazi memorabilia and antique pistols. And now here - the star attraction - comes The Lady Chablis, a black drag queen and soul singer.

Berendt - and the reader - are in travel- writer heaven, but there have already been intermittent whispers from hell. Savannians keep making those doomy speeches given to char ladies in murder mysteries, about the remoteness of the location. 'We're a terribly inconvenient destination]' the author is told by the same local who cheerfully points out the nearby beauty spot, the Stranger's Tomb, an empty sepulchre ready for the corpse of any visitor who needs it. A former town luminary has helpfully had his tomb made in the shape of a bench, a reminder for tired cemetery browsers of what rest is one step away from. Minerva, the local occultist, intervenes in community disputes not with letters to the newspaper, but with handfuls of earth from local graves hurled at windows in the night.

These forebodings explode halfway through the book, when Jim Williams is charged with murdering his catamite, Danny, in the mansion that Jackie O wanted. The four separate trials of Williams - superior court appeals and other legal complications stretch his journey through the courts to several years - dominate the rest of what now becomes a significantly different book. The story includes at least one Grishamesque forensic twist, and an edgy sequence in which Berendt apparently hears Williams's true confession of events.

It is in the nature of Savannah, however, that the book does not become a straight legal procedural. Although employing top-dollar lawyers, Williams is also investing in the magic of Minerva, who is now hurling cemetery top-soil, or obscure roots, at the windows of key judges, DAs and jurors. It is the mystic who gets the book's best line. Piling up meat and carbohydrates as a libation to the neighbourhood witches, she explains: 'Witches is old folk, most of them. They don't care none for low-cal.' Minerva is also involved in the climactic scene - half comic, half horrifying - in the Savannah graveyard at night.

Describing weirdness, Berendt's prose is almost pointedly straight. He never tries to compete with the speakers. This discretion is sensible, as his occasional travelogue flourishes come out lumpy: 'In mid-March, the azaleas burst forth in gigantic pillows of white, red and vermilion. White dogwood blossoms floated on like clouds of confectioner's sugar above the azaleas.'

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil also contains dangerous intimations thatthe author hopes to hang on this description of Savannah grander philosophical or cultural theories. The pompous tide warns of some kind of behavioural thesis, and Berendt offers various meditations on the effect of geographical isolation: 'Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.'

But the book doesn't need these deeper notes, working perfectly as rollicking popular anthropology, with the ballast of Jim and Danny's tragedy. This is a book which leaves you amused, spooked and introduced to a new piece of America. Oh, and glad Peter Mayle's wish never came true.