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In the Heat of the Night ()

Edgar Award Winner: Best First Novel (1966)

    'You're pretty sure of yourself, aren't you, Virgil,' Gillespie retorted.  'Incidentally, Virgil is a
    pretty fancy name for a black boy like you.  What do they call you around home where you come
    from ?'

    'They call me Mr. Tibbs,' Virgil answered.

            -In the Heat of the Night

Winner of the Edgar Award for Best First Mystery and subsequently made into an Academy Award winning movie and successful TV series, In the Heat of the Night is only a decent mystery, but it's a great book about race.  Though the book is different in many respects from the better known film, at its core it is still about the dilemmas faced by a proud black detective who is forced to help with a murder investigation in the Deep South, and by the white police officers who are forced to confront the disparity between their prejudices and the reality of this competent, likable fellow officer.

Though the main clash of characters occurs between Virgil Tibbs and Chief Gillespie--particularly in the movie where Poitier and Steiger were the stars--in many ways the key character in the novel is Sam Wood, the conscientious patrolman, later a suspect in the crime, who is young enough, open-minded enough, and resentful enough of Gillespie to give Tibbs a fair shake.  More than anything, Sam is enamored with his own role as a law enforcement officer.  He's clearly looking for a role model and it's fascinating to watch him struggle with the idea that Virgil, though black, may be the ideal person to emulate.

The racial and moral questions that animate the story help to overcome some rather stilted dialogue and a too frequent recourse to ending scenes with a shocking cliffhanger revelation from Virgil--for instance : "You see, sir, I know it for a fact that you've got the wrong man."   Then again this was Ball's maiden effort, and some lapses into formula are to be expected.  The book deserves to be read and remembered for its groundbreaking presentation of an unreservedly heroic black and its salutary message : that men should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.  The online magazine Salon ran a column several years ago suggesting that the film version of In the Heat of the Night might be one of the most profound movies ever made about race in America.  The book too can stand its own ground alongside other, more "literary," texts like Invisible Man and Native Son; and it's message of hope and the possibility of progress has proven it more prophetic than its more revered rivals.


Grade: (A-)


John Ball Links:

    -ESSAY: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE HEROES OF BLACK PULP: Finding inspiration and representation in the slam-bang cool of Black Pulp, past & present. (MICHAEL GONZALES, 6/27/19, Crime Reads)

Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW : of In the Heat of the Night by John Ball (Mystery Guide)
    -AWARD : Edgar Award for Best First Mystery

    -FILMOGRAPHY : "John Ball" (Imdb)
    -INFO : In the Heat of the Night (1967) (Imdb)
    -BUY IT : In the Heat of the Night (1967) DVD (
    -ESSAY : And the Oscar for Realism goes to... : WANT TO TALK   ABOUT RACE?:  SEE A 30-YEAR-OLD MOVIE.  (MARK GAUVREAU JUDGE, Salon)

    -LESSON PLAN : American Detectives: On TV and in Books (Jane K. Marshall, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute )
    -African American Mystery Page