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‘I would inquire, observe, and poke around wherever my curiosity led me or wherever I was invited. I would presume nothing. I would take notes," writes New Yorker John Berendt about his part-time life in the small US town of Savannah, the setting for Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, the most phenomenal American non-fiction best-seller of the 1990s. “Over a period of eight years I did just that, except that my stays in Savannah became longer and my return trips to New York shorter. At times, I came to think of myself as living in Savannah. I found myself involved in an adventure peopled by an unusual assortment of characters and enlivened by a series of strange events, up to and including murder."

The criminal case landed practically at the writer’s doorstep during his first year in town, giving the book its incredible storyline. One of the acquaintances he made early on in his sojourn, a prosperous antiques dealer, used an old Nazi-era Luger to shoot a hot-headed young male hustler who was a live-in handyman at his mansion.

Naturally, the affair rattled Savannah, especially since most of the socialites had attended parties at the opulent mansion, filled with priceless antiques. Few had the faintest inkling that their macho host was gay. Berendt records the whole story—including how the antiques dealer not only engages a reputable lawyer for his defence, but also a voodoo priestess to cast spells and evil eyes in the courtroom. Berendt even goes on a midnight trip with the priestess to collect paranormal herbs from a graveyard. The tale is so amazingly weird that many readers actually thought it to be a fanciful novel.

It was by pure chance that Berendt was at the right place at the right time and able to record events both pre- and post-mortem, so to speak, but it is his clever usage of that lucky opportunity that makes his book into one of the most readable true crime books ever written.

It should be noted that Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil isn’t just the story of a crime, but a larger narrative of the surrounding milieu, peopled as it is by a variety of oddball characters. It creates a vivid picture of a genteel, eccentric, frozen-in-time, redneck, inward-looking, isolated town “that thrives on gossip". The book went on to spend 216 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, the movie rights were picked up by none less than Clint Eastwood, and some of the characters—such as a transvestite diva—got famous enough to clinch their own publishing deals. Tourist arrivals in Savannah doubled, in the long run creating an estimated 1,500 new job opportunities locally.

Now why am I speaking of this old book? If you recall, I wrote a column a few weeks ago on true crime as an emerging genre in Indian publishing. It led me to wonder about what might be the most influential true crime book of all time, and thence on to Berendt, who won hands down—for his isn’t a journalistic work but something in its own league altogether.

The genre is rather well established internationally so there were quite a few books vying for the top slot—indeed, some of the best were by novelists. Truman Capote’s landmark 1966 best-seller In Cold Blood: A True Account Of A Multiple Murder And Its Consequences is often seen as the origin of the genre, and an obvious forerunner to Berendt’s book. In it, Capote investigated a failed robbery turned massacre of a god-fearing farmer family in Holcomb, Kansas, committed by two homicidal psychopath youngsters who eventually got executed (but not before granting interviews to Capote).

Arriving in Holcomb two days after the funerals, Capote, like Berendt, saw the writing project as an opportunity to travel outside New York for subject matter. But while In Cold Blood is a grand experiment in journalism, which Capote devoted six years to, it is, frankly speaking, a bit dull to read.

Even the 1967 movie version was somewhat anaemic, although it had, starring as one of the killers, my childhood private-eye TV hero Robert Blake (known from the 1970s serial Baretta and who was later himself on trial for the murder of his second wife). Other books that featured high in my list were Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack And The Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami in which he interviews survivors of the cultish 1995 terror attack on the Tokyo subway system, James Ellroy’s memoir My Dark Places where he tries to solve the murder of his own mother, Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter from 1974, which is one of the most authoritative descriptions of the Manson cult murders in California towards the fag end of the hippie era, and The Life And Serious Crimes Of Charles Sobhraj, written by Julie Clarke and Richard Neville, about a man who left a trail of dead tourists in his wake in Asia in the 1970s.

All these books incidentally reinforce the idea that truth is stranger than fiction. That’s why it’s called non-fiction, I guess.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon A Time In Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout Of Bengaluru.

Also Read Zac’s previous Lounge columns

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