Midnight in the garden of good and evil writing styles

My favorite genre is not true-crime, it is mystery—specifically historical mysteries. However, I read across all different genres, and I just finished Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil last night.

I have found an online source, Goodreads, where I write all my reviews (mostly to myself, to help remind me which books I’ve read, since I read too many and time flies by too fast to remember what they are, let alone what I thought of them).

Ultimately, this could save money, since I have a terrible tendency to completely forget which books I’ve read, and then I buy them again, only to find as I’m reading them that the plot sounds awfully familiar….

Here’s my review, pasted in from Goodreads. It’s a pretty unhappy review, since I expected to love this book, and didn’t, and was therefore left rather disappointed.  Also, I have to say that this book was shortlisted for a Pulitzer, but the writing style didn’t seem extraordinary enough to warrant that kind of high praise. This leaves me wondering what are the criteria for Pulitzer-quality writing?

Berendt is a journalist who hasn’t mastered the art of translating reporter’s notes into flowing narrative fiction, an admittedly difficult skill, and one hard to live up to after Truman Capote created the genre of true-fictional-crime with his seminal In Cold Blood. I’ve discovered that, once again, my perceptions about what constitutes good writing, and what other people consider good writing, are very different; a fact I find rather dispiriting, actually.

Here’s my review. I’m not happy with it, largely because I’m not happy criticizing someone’s writing when they did a really excellent job, but you find it’s missing that crucial element you need, as a reader, to make it highly memorable:

The stiltedness of Berendt’s reportage-style detracts from the story he was trying to tell. I wish someone would do a rewrite and turn this into narrative fiction, because then it would have the potential to be absolutely fascinating, but the story, as it is, reads too much like a lengthy newspaper column.

Given Berendt’s background as a journalist, that isn’t surprising, but if he was able to turn as much of it into fiction as he must have, to reorder events and change character’s names to protect their innocence, (not that anyone sounds particularly innocent in Savannah, Georgia) then it ought to be possible to turn this into proper fiction.

Unfortunately, I was hoping for an unputdownable story of compelling characters and scenes, complete with a murder mystery and whodunit in a unique and unforgettable location, but what it felt like was following around behind Berendt as he took notes and tried to shape those notes into a coherent story.

So what is it that made this book so readable that it was a finalist for a Pulitzer? I get the impression that Berendt walked into a writer’s gold-mine the day he decided to get to know Savannah and its highly eccentric residents. He has an ability to recreate dialogue from some very interesting (and funny) people, and he had a ready-made plot evolve right in front of him as he got to know Jim Williams, accused of shooting his male lover/companion/sadist.

But there was so much more Berendt could have done with this wonderful material, that it leaves me disappointed. I have to say that the effect of this book was probably dissipated for me by the evil of watching the movie first. That’s one of those realities of modern living that corrupts the author’s abilities and vision, because it gives the reader the impression that the book and the movie are mirror images, when they clearly are not.

This is subject matter that obviously comes along only once in a lifetime, if you pursue it, as Berendt was wise enough to do. Yet in my imagination, much, much more could have been done with the material, and in my editor’s eye, if I’d had Berendt as a client, I would have tried to get him to write more elegant transitional statements. Too much writing today needs better editing, though, if you ask me. As part of the ‘true crime’ genre, this works, but it doesn’t dazzle, and it should.

5 thoughts on “Midnight in the garden of good and evil writing styles

  1. I appreciate your point of view; but, I actually did enjoy Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil when I read it a few years ago. It was a page-turner for me; however, I was enamored with the setting (Savannah, GA) and I in fact felt compelled to visit the city because of the story. Clearly, I did not pay attention to the writing style.

    What I find intriguing is how you mentioned Capote’s In Cold Blood, a book I read within a short period of the aforementioned Berendt book. I did not care for it, even though it was in the same genre. Incidentally, I read both books way before I saw the movies. Truman Capote was quite a manipulator and I can see where that may serve him well as a writer. With gratitude, Dr. Angi

    • I know, I liked it a lot, I really did, for a lot of reasons, but none of them were his style of writing. It was not a page-turner for me, since there was no mystery to solve, and I already knew the outcome. I found his style too staccato. It lacked flow. There’s a musical quality to good writing (E. M. Forster wrote about this in an essay) and I have found that it’s so true; writing takes on a musical metaphor when you listen for its rhythm.

      In Cold Blood is a story of such terrible violence that the shock of the facts as Capote interpreted them (using the fictional license he granted himself) almost dominates the writing style, but then, Capote had the ‘great good fortune,’ if you will, of defining a brand new style of writing, although it can easily be argued that Plato did the same thing with Socrates, in that he created a fictional character and wrote of him even while Socrates was alive. I have to wonder how many writers who fictionalize do a major injustice to the real people they write about. This might also be true of the Bible, but that is an egregious digression, massively off-topic.

      Finally, what I am critiquing here is not the quality of the story, but the effectiveness of the style in which the story is told. I think the writer, through his or her writing style, creates a world you enter. Sometimes you enter willingly, sometimes less so… sometimes you enjoy your stay there, sometimes you can’t wait to leave. I found myself getting tired and wanting to leave Berendt’s Savannah about 2/3 of the way through, largely from boredom. I think it was the detail about the dog, Uga, that finally did me in. I found the digression into the story of the football mascot irrelevant to the main story, and wondered why it was necessary. It felt like filler, and made me question his rhetorical choices.

  2. Thank you for the elaboration, Dr. Gunn. I bet it would be a phenomenal experience to be in a book club with you.
    I more recently read Room: A Novel (by Emma Donaghue), which was told from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy. I felt the author was quite successful, but one could argue that it was not very authentic. The thriller/mystery took many interesting turns. If you have not read it, I would recommend it as it is a quick read.
    I am currently reading a provocative non-fiction, Some We Love, Some We Hate, and Some We Eat by Hal Herzog, which is about people’s behavior toward animals. Dr. Herzog makes some very intriguing observations. Have a blessed night, Dr. Angi

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