"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil": the tour

What fans of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" need to see in Savannah.

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    The 1994 cover of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" brought so much attention to a Savannah cemetery statue that it was moved to a museum for safekeeping.
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It takes a bit of effort to find the whole truth in Savannah.

Take the willowy tendrils that hang down so evocatively from the countless oak trees. You might be told that it's Spanish moss. But it isn't Spanish nor is it moss: The plant lives off water in the air.

Tour guides will tell you that the waterfront statue of a woman waving a cloth depicts a spinster who greeted ships for 50 years, waiting in vain for her beloved sailor to come home before succumbing to a broken heart. But that's not true: She was just a nice lady who was a kind of one-person welcoming committee.

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And in one of the town's beautiful squares sits a fine old mansion that offers tours of its exquisite interior. Walk inside and you'll hear about the former owner's commitment to the restoration of historic homes and the difference he made. But there won't be a peep about a very messy bit of business: the fatal shooting in the study that spawned a runaway bestseller and turned Savannah into a top tourist destination.

"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," the true story of early 1980s Savannah and a riveting murder trial, cranked up Savannah's reputation as a tourist destination. More than 15 years later, the sites mentioned in the book still draw a steady stream of visitors, even if the past isn't always explicitly acknowledged.

Last weekend, I made a side trip to the "Hostess City of the South." I wasn't around long enough to fully savor the gothic side of Savannah depicted in the book, which portrays a genteel town full of ghosts and open secrets, or to catch a performance by major character Lady Chablis, yet another Savannah icon with a little something to hide . But I did manage to visit two haunts that should be on the itinerary of any "Midnight" fan.

• Monterey Square
Savannah is full of gorgeous squares – more than 20 of them – full of oak trees and statues and benches. Monterey Square is considered the most prestigious of them all. It's definitely the most notorious thanks to the fatal encounter between a gentlemanly antique dealer and a young hustler (called a "walking streak of sex") back in 1981.

The killing took place in the Mercer Williams House, built by an ancestor of Savannah native and famed songwriter Johnny Mercer.

Drop by the square during the day, as I did, and you can watch the tourists walk by on tours, gaping up at the windows and a chandelier inside. Sit in the square at night and you might imagine watching the denizens of Savannah society arrive at the house for one of its owner's Christmas parties. Or you might transport yourself back in time to listen for the fatal shots and watch the huge cluster of cops tromp into the mansion on the night that launched four murder trials.

• Bonaventure Cemetery
Don't go there looking for the "Bird Girl" statue from the cover of "Midnight." The photograph became so well-known that people worried for the once-obscure statue's safety. It now sits in a Savannah museum.

But there's still plenty to savor in this meandering graveyard, a quintessential Southern cemetery that's a few miles from downtown. No tour buses seem to go out to the cemetery, but it's easy to find by car and the ride from the Savannah historic district only costs about $20 round-trip by cab.

John Berendt, the author of "Midnight," visited Bonaventure with a chatty Savannah matron who regaled him with amusing stories of the town's past. There's no need for a map: You should easily find its highlights, including gloriously creepy Victorian memorial statues and the lyric-filled gravestones of Johnny Mercer and members of his family.

Head to the far end of the cemetery and you'll find benches overlooking the beautiful Wilmington River. Sit on one and listen to the silence broken only by birdsong, the rustle of animals, and the whisper of cars on a nearby bridge.

As Berendt writes, Savannah poet Conrad Aiken used to sit on this same bluff to commune with nature and chat with his late parents in the family plot. He's buried there now, near the bluff over the river, under a bench engraved with his name and the words "Cosmos Mariner, Destination Unknown."

Aiken borrowed the words from the name of a ship and its entry in the local shipping news. But they sound like they came from his poetic imagination. Just another Savannah illusion.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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