Review by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
Published in 1965, David Ball’s In The Heat Of The Night is not only a well crafted police procedural, but also a sharp reflection of its time. The story of a black police detective forced to solve a murder in a Jim Crow town vibrates with social and political overtones. One could argue it is one of the first overt uses of the crime novel as political statement.
Even the inciting incident that pulls Virgil Tibbs into the story is political. Set in the fiction town of Wells, South Carolina, the night deputy, Sam Woods discovers the body of a visiting conductor who was heading up the local music festival. Ordered by the new sheriff, Gillespie, to check the train station, Sam finds Tibbs. He arrests the man mainly because he’s black and has over a hundred dollars on him. After the initial embarrassment of learning that Tibbs is a Homicide investigator from Pasadena, California, he is asked to look into the murder. This is mainly done, so if it goes unsolved, the sheriff can blame Tibbs for the murder.
Virgil often comes off as a black hero designed by a white liberal author of the Sixties (which Ball was, as well as a police officer). With the exception of the color of his skin, Virgil is given mainly Caucasian features.He rarely shows anger when people in Wells say the vilest, racist comments. The slap in the film version does not appear anywhere in the book. Like the judo he demonstrates when jumped by some rednecks, he sometimes redirects the bigotry to his advantage. As writer and filmmaker John Ridley describes him in the forward to the book’s Fiftieth Anniversary edition, “Virgil Tibbs is a black man more carefully constructed, than fully realized…” to explore race with a hero who would be non-threatening to white readers.
That said, the book deals with race relations in insightful ways. Much of this is done through Deputy Wood. The thoughts he was brought up with are challenged when he sees a man of color perform is job with brilliance and skill. He even comes to depend on Virgil when stuck between a rock and a hard place. when he knows he did it, Virgil uses the killer’s racism to apprehend him. Yet the last sentence, dealing with a handshake, shows that society had a way to go and may still.
Just because In The Heat Of The Night is a product of its time, it is no less engaging. Its style is tight with a mystery that is logical and well put together, as well as looking at the relationship between personal and institutional racism with clear eyes. It is well worth the read.
You can find copies of In The Heat of the Night on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.