Frankly, they had us at “… and Laverne Cox as the Lady Chablis.”
With its soaked-in-secrets Savannah setting and larger-than-life, real life characters, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” was an instant sensation when it was published in 1994. No one needs an excuse to revisit writer John Berendt’s true crime classic; though, a new digital version being released this week is as good a one as any.
But buckle your seat belts, Berendt-lovers and bibliophiles! Because the new app from Metabook that’s now available exclusively in Apple’s App Store doesn’t revisit “Midnight” so much as reinvent it for readers.
“It’s something quite new,” said Berendt, who’ll discuss the app and his book on a panel at the Margaret Mitchell House on Thursday night. “It’s not just an offshoot of what you do when you publish a book.”
Given “Midnight’s” track record — it still holds the nonfiction record at 216 weeks on the New York Times’ best-seller list and was a 1995 Pulitzer Prize finalist — you almost couldn’t blame Berendt if he’d succumbed to hyperbole. But an early spin around the app confirms it’s got the goods, and then some.
First the goods: A full text version of “The Book” (as scandalized-meets-titillated Savannahians took to calling Berendt’s saga of its eccentric citizenry set against the backdrop of one resident’s four murder trials). Accompanied by an audio drama version that’s much more than the usual one, dulcet-toned narrator reading everything. The nearly two dozen-strong cast is headed by current Broadway star Dylan Baker (“The Audience,” opposite Helen Mirren) as Jim Williams, the wealthy antiques dealer/accused murderer, and “Orange Is the New Black” Emmy nominee Cox as the preoperative transsexual drag queen the Lady Chablis.
“These are such larger-than-life characters, the story just called for that approach,” Metabook creative director Benjamin Alfonsi said about the ambitious audio drama, which even features background sounds of engines revving or cocktails being shaken. “Midnight” is the first release from the just launched digital book app platform, which will primarily publish new titles (the next two are already lined up) along with integrated multimedia content, Alfonsi explained: “We’re always striving for a complete assault on the senses.”
Indeed, here’s just some of the “and then some” available on the $9.99 “Midnight” app:
- A 360-degree virtual panorama of the namesake garden of good and evil, aka Bonaventure Cemetery.
- Exclusive new video interviews with Berendt and Alfred Uhry, the Oscar/Tony/Pulitzer-winning playwright (“Driving Miss Daisy,” “Parade”) and Atlanta native who is adapting “Midnight” for the stage.
- Photos of “Midnight’s” key people and places (Uga IV and Uga V have died since appearing in the book and movie respectively, but there’s a handsome new shot of the current UGA mascot, Uga IX) and crime scene photos from the fatal shooting at Mercer House.
- Never-before publicly heard audio recordings of Williams, including some phone conversations he had from jail with Berendt.
The overall effect is that of reading a good book and Googling the most interesting parts — but only if someone had already done all the searches for you, and managed to reach places even Google can’t (i.e., those audio recordings, which belong to Berendt).
Perhaps no one’s more surprised by this downloadable plot twist than the author himself. Back in 1994, he’d insisted that publisher Random House include no photographs in “Midnight,” wanting it to read like a novel where “you depend on the descriptions in the book to (form) a picture of its people and places.”
Flash-forward some 20 years and the app not only includes crime scene photos, but Berendt himself provided the commentary.
“Now when people read a book and they hit on a character who’s a real person, they pick up their cellphone and bing, bing, there he is,” Berendt, 75, chuckled. “Who am I kidding, it’s all one experience now.”
Margaret Mitchell House Lecture: An Evening With John Berendt
7 p.m. Thursday. Free. Margaret Mitchell House, 990 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. Reservations recommended. 404-249-7015, www.atlantahistorycenter.com/mmh.