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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

January 23, 1994|DICK RORABACK

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL by John Berendt (Random House: $23; 390 pp.) Smart people, the Savannahians. When Sherman's Civil War scorched-earth march fetched up on their doorstep, they immediately surrendered on condition that the general spare their city. He did, and Savannah never looked back--or forward. Sherman spared what the French, among other connoisseurs, call the most beautiful city in America. Also, John Berendt relates, America's most insular, inbred, eccentric, estranged, albeit enchanting city, resisting any change, spurning all suitors, asking only to be left alone. City of cotillions and chilled martinis, where a rare stranger is not asked what he does or where he's from but what he wants to drink. And a city of secrets as well. "You mustn't be taken in by the moonlight and magnolias," Jim Williams tells Berendt. "Things can get murky." Not least murky is Williams himself. In his opulent, lovingly restored mansion one fragrant May night, Williams shoots to death Danny Hansford, 21, his sexy, violent, volatile "assistant." Berendt, who seems congenitally unable to write a dull paragraph, spins out Williams' lengthy murder trial with exquisite suspense, but his real subject is Savannah: its rhythms, its mores, its foibles, its gentilities.

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