January 26, 2017
In 1965, Harper & Row published John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, and in 1967 the movie adaptation was released. Sydney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, the book’s black police detective, and Rod Steiger played Bill Gillespie, the bigoted southern police chief who needs Tibbs’ help to solve a case. (Steiger won an Oscar for Best Actor in the role.) I never saw the film and also never read the book, until now. I picked up the 2015 Penguin Classics 50th anniversary paperback, motivated not only to read this time-honored story but also curious about its depiction of racism.
While the movie takes place in a fictionalized Sparta, Mississippi, in the book the setting is Wells, South Carolina. In the late hours of night, a murder is committed, and Virgil Tibbs becomes the prime suspect. He’s found in the segregated waiting area of the train station by Officer Sam Woods, who assumes Tibbs committed the crime and is making his getaway. In reality, Tibbs is passing through the town, changing trains on his way home to California, after visiting his mother in the South. It’s obvious the arrest happens because Tibbs is black.
When the gracious Tibbs reveals to Woods and Police Chief Gillespie that he’s employed as a homicide detective in Pasadena, California, Gillespie asks him to help them solve the murder. Gillespie knows his police force, including himself, doesn’t have enough experience to investigate the high-profile case. How the investigation unfolds puts this story in the top ranks of great mystery writing – and also in the top ranks of books about racism. Tibbs never allows Woods, Gillespie and the town councilmen to intimidate him or demean his expertise with all their offensive remarks. His overwhelming courtesy, patience and self-confidence shine a large spotlight on their egregious behavior. They come across as limited and foolish, such as when Woods sincerely wonders how a black man could receive high levels of detective training. Tibbs replies:
“…it may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”
Author John Ball takes another swipe at Officer Woods’ bigotry via the daughter of the slain man, an Italian conductor who came to Wells to establish a music festival. Woods is enamored with the beautiful young woman, but she puts him in his place with a verbal slap of a comment, when he speaks of racial prejudice as a way of life in the southern states . You can just feel Woods’ reaction of being “acutely uncomfortable” after she says:
“Some people don’t like Italians; they think we’re different, you know. Oh, they’ll make an exception for a Toscanini or a Sophia Loren, but the rest of us are supposed to be vegetable peddlers or else gangsters.”
In the Heat of the Night is a suspenseful murder mystery that offers several surprising twists and turns of events on its way toward the conclusion. All along, I kept trying to guess how it would end, but I was never even close. Published in the 1960’s, the story richly reflects race relations in the Jim Crow American south with a story as memorable as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was named one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.