Shots rang out in Savannah’s grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt’s sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case.
This book took me an exceptionally long time to read. I tried a few years ago and couldn’t get past the first few chapters, and then re-started, took a couple months off, and finally finished it today. The story itself – the actual murder and subsequent trial – were interesting, particularly since the case itself was rather ground-breaking in terms of how many times they tried to convict Jim Williams of murder (and the incompetence of the District Attorney was also kind of astounding). But the story suffered – in my opinion – from the way it was written. It took nearly half the book for the actual murder to take place; instead, we get chapter after chapter where all these crazy, unbelievable characters are introduced. And they are even more unbelievable because they are indeed real. You have the guy who knows poisons and could poison the entire town’s water supply if the mood struck him. You have his girlfriend, a pinup from the 1940s and 1950s who lounges around her house in her negligee, and drives around intoxicated. There’s the piano-playing lawyer slash con-artist, and his constant changing of houses (none of which he owns, but all of which he provides tours of for the paying public), and the Voodoo priestess Minerva, who goes about chewing roots and putting curses on people. And then there is Chablis, a ridiculously over-the-top drag queen. It’s hard to believe that one town could contain so many different personalities, but Savannah pulls it off.
I enjoyed the look at the characters but sort of spent most of the book just wanting to get to the point. The problem is that I can’t actually tell you what the point is. If the book had focused solely on the murder and trials, it would have been boring, even if the four different trials all provided something different and vaguely entertaining. So perhaps the point was the eccentricities of the people of Savannah. But I found myself getting bored by their many descriptions as well. It got to the point where I didn’t let myself read anything but this book, just so I would finish it, and now that I’m done with it, I’m just sort of left feeling underwhelmed. Some of the characters’ antics were funny in a completely LOL-inducing way, but I just found myself … not caring. Clearly this just was not the book for me, but it was nice to finally cross it off my “currently-reading/to-read” lists.