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An Investigation into a Publishing Sensation

11:00 PM, Dec 29, 1996 • By DANIEL WATTENBERG
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"The half hour before midnight is for doin' good," according to Minerva, the voodoo witch in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. "The half hour after midnight is for doin' evil." And these days in Savannah, Ga., the setting for Berendt's many-layered non-fiction tale of an insular southern city's secrets, the rest of the time is for doin' business.

Before publication in February 1994, commercial expectations for Midnight were modest. The first printing was a moderate 25,000 copies, but as booksellers quickly talked it up to their customers, and delighted readers talked it up to other readers, Midnight became a word-of-mouth smash. It entered the New York Times bestseller list in March 1994 and has been there, with a few gaps, ever since -- 134 weeks in all, 78 printings, and no end in sight. Over 1.1 million hardcover copies are in print. And almost three years after publication, no date has even been set for release of a paperback edition. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is, without a doubt, the publishing sensation of the decade.

Midnight has become a Macarena for middlebrows, a cultural-commercial craze whose epicenter is Savannah. In the storied old port city, it is now called, simply, "The Book." Random House publicist Pamela Cannon says The Book has stimulated a 46 percent increase in tourism to Savannah and added 24 new businesses and 1,500 new jobs to the local economy.

One local bookshop alone has sold 15,000 copies of The Book. Clint Eastwood, soon to begin directing the movie version, dropped by John and Ginger Duncan's map-and-print store on Monterrey Square to view John's slide show based on The Book. The Duncans have sold 6,000 copies. "We sold 33 yesterday," said Ginger, clutching a fistful of dollars. A shop called The Book is dedicated exclusively to the sale of Midnight epiphenomena. A local news documentary about the book is screened in the front room. A recording of the book's elderly pianist/singer Emma Kelly plays on the cassette deck elsewhere. The audio-cassette version of Midnight plays in the back room, also the home of the childhood library of Jim Williams, the Savannah host-with-the- most whose four trials for murder form the heart of the narrative. And prominently displayed alongside signed copies of The Book are copies of Hiding My Candy, the autobiography of Lady Chablis, the local drag queen made famous by The Book. For Hiding My Candy, the 8th-grade dropout pocketed a $ 100,000 advance from Simon and Schuster.

And the two distinctive visual icons associated with the book -- the "Bird Girl" statue on the cover and the facade of Mercer House, Williams's lovingly restored Italianate mansion -- have assumed a multiplicity of merchandisable forms in the shop: postcards and breast pins, tie clips, watercolors, note cards, and coffee mugs.

Midnight has so reawakened interest in the songs of Savannah-bred Johnny Mercer, whose images of moonlit southern mildness form a recurring motif in The Book, that a New York impresario has staged an eight-city " Midnight in the Garden" Jazz Tour dedicated to Mercer's music. Catching up with it in Jacksonville, Fla., on a Tuesday night, I found a sellout crowd of thousands transfixed by the concert of Mercer songs keyed to readings from The Book by Berendt, Chablis, and others. The sound system fed back and Chablis rubbed some lines, but for a jazz concert based on a prestige book, the midweek sellout was impressive. After all, we do not listen to jazz or read books anymore in America. Much less in Jacksonville.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil deserves its astonishing success. It is compulsively readable, a fascinating mix of an In Cold Blood-style true crime story, a comedy of manners, and a wonderful evocation of the eccentricities, beauties, and legends of a grand old city gone to seed and then reborn.

The Book is a murder mystery nested in a framework of interlocking character sketches. Williams, a gay antiques dealer with a discerning eye and an acid tongue, is accused of murdering his young lover, Danny Hansford. Williams's humble country beginnings are lacquered under an aristocratic finish acquired during decades of restoring Savannah's neglected architectural splendors and picking through the auction houses of the world for priceless objets d'art.

The second male lead is Joe Odom, the charming scapegrace who keeps his sang-froid in hot water: former tax lawyer, cocktail pianist, squatter in temporarily unoccupied mansions, a Rhett Butler for our time. Odom's love interest is "Mandy," a big-haired lounge singer and voluptuous ex-beauty queen once crowned Miss BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) in Las Vegas.