I have a dream of a Southern literary trip. A group of women traveling to New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, and other notable cities, reading books set in all of those cities with a heavy emphasis on Southern gothics. Lots of reading, brunching, shopping, and discussing favorite books.
As it happens, I am visiting Savannah, but it’s a solo trip. A quick getaway, really, but I still did some reading in preparation. Whether you are also planning to visit the city or if you simply appreciate Southern literature, I hope you enjoy this list. Books set in Savannah tend to be on the darker side–mysteries and true crime–as it does have a reputation of being the most haunted city in the US. If you want to read about Savannah, but you really aren’t into thrillers or true crime, you could try Mary Kay Andrews, who has some lighter women’s fiction set in the city.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt (true crime)
Meet saints and sinners . . . okay, meet sinners in this story of 1980’s Savannah focused on the fatal shooting of Danny Hansford by antiques dealer, Jim Williams. The snobby yet endlessly quotable antiques dealer is, of course, is the focus of the book. He is a murky, but larger than life character who created more of a scandal for being outed as gay at his trial than he was for shooting his own employee. The supporting characters are also scene stealers. A vibrant trans woman, The Lady Chablis, who Berendt impressively does not misgender while writing in the decidedly un-PC early 1990s. A quiet man who is rumored to have the ability to poison the entire city. A voodoo practitioner with a strong sense of justice. Conmen and debutantes. Businessmen seeking to direct the fate of Savannah. And through it all, Berendt, weaves through the town, a New Yorker turned part-time Savannahian, collecting quirky characters like baseball cards. It is, admittedly, not a book for the true crime fan who wants to get to the point. That person should turn to a podcast. It’s the story of a specific place and a specific time, of inclusion and exclusion, and the costs of gentrification.
Kingdoms of Savannah by George Dawes Green (thriller)
One night in Savannah, Matilda Stone (Stony) and Luke Kitchens go to Bo Peep’s for a drink, capturing a bit more public attention than they realize. Stony is drugged and kidnapped outside the bar, and Luke, who tries to protect his friend, is murdered. Luke’s body does not remain on the streets of Savannah. It ends up in a building belonging to Archie Guzman, infamous local slumlord, known as the Gooze, which is then set on fire. No one is surprised when the Gooze is arrested for arson and accidental murder. He is hated by the working class for his frequent evictions and by high society for tearing down historical buildings and building monstrosities in their place. The Gooze reaches out to Morgana Musgrove, a society lady who became the owner of a detective agency after her husband’s death, to clear his name. Morgana, who has no love for the man, senses he is telling the truth while her children and grandchildren are convinced of his guilt. Morgana’s agreement to take on his case creates a rift between her and her granddaughter, Jaq, who was a friend of Luke’s and one of the last people to see him alive. But in her own investigation, Jaq begins to see that the murder was not simply a case of greed for insurance money, but all about what Stony knew, a secret that went back to pre-Civil War time. Like in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Savannah functions as a character, but while Midnight focuses mostly on the rich, Kingdoms’ gaze is on those living on the margins. Literally in this case, as much of the book takes place in the homeless encampments on the edges of the city. There is resolution, but it’s messy and full of compromise. No one truly comes out a winner. The bittersweet ending feels appropriate. Anything too tidy would feel false in Green’s Savannah. Don’t miss the author’s notes in the end, sharing what is based in fact and what is pure fiction. This would appeal to readers of literary fiction, thrillers, and Southern gothics.
All the Dangerous Things by Stacy Willingham (thriller)
This one was a bonus, as I had no idea it was set in Savannah when I started the audiobook. Isabelle Drake hasn’t been able to sleep since the night her son, Mason, was stolen from the family home while she and her husband slept. Instead she takes the dog for long night-time walks and collages newspaper clippings to work out what happened to her son. When Isabelle runs out of angles to investigate, she turns to a true crime podcaster who forces her to face the possibility that the kidnapper may have not been a stranger but someone who lived in the house. Was it her husband, who left her for another woman months after Mason’s disappearance? Or was it her and the sleepwalking that had plagued her as a child returned? Isabelle must work out what happened to Mason before her insomnia leads to psychosis. Willingham’s second novel is strong and much more original than her debut, which I reviewed here.
Black, White, and the Grey by Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano (memoir)
When the Greyhound Station opened up in Savannah, Georgia, it was designed for the Jim Crow South with white and colored waiting rooms and restrooms. When New York businessman, Johno Morisano, purchased it in 2013 with dreams of opening a restaurant, the abandoned building was both a tribute to art deco architecture and a reminder of institutional racism past and present. A year later, Morisano opened The Grey with a new partner, up-and-coming chef Mashama Bailey. Black, White, and the Grey is the story of how two cofounders, one a White man and the other Black woman, learned to communicate and create a restaurant family in the modern South. It is the story of the love of food, finding common ground, and the complications of unconscious bias. Reading this book last year in preparation for this blog post initially sparked my interest in both Savannah and the Grey, and was possibly the factor that led me to pick Savannah out of all the US cities I considered for my vacation.
Bonus read: Anything by Flannery O’Connor. Not really set in Savannah, but O’Connor spent her early life in Savannah, and you can see her childhood home while in town.