Literary Criticism and Significance
John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night has become a classic work since its publication in 1965. In the Heat of the Night was released to positive reviews and won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best First Novel, an award that recognizes exceptional work within the mystery genre. In the Heat of the Night went on to be adapted for film as well as television. Critics tend to praise In the Heat of the Night for its social discussion.
Although In the Heat of the Night was Ball’s debut novel, it set out a template for much of his career. Ball called upon his black detective, Virgil Tibbs, in several sequels, the last of which was written more than twenty years after In the Heat of the Night was published. Throughout all of the novels, Tibbs stands out as a model citizen who emphasizes the injustice of judging a man by the color of his skin rather than the content of his character. (Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was given two years before In the Heat of the Night was published.) Tibbs himself points this out to Sam Wood when he argues that he is
constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference.
Although In the Heat of the Night was acclaimed as a novel of suspense and mystery, it was Ball’s social criticism that won the work so much attention.
In the Heat of the Night has been adapted into three major films. The first film went on to win five Academy Awards. The films change many of the details from Ball’s original novel, including the setting and some of Tibbs’s background. However, they maintain and even emphasize the conflict between Tibbs and the town, especially Gillespie. Both the novel and the first film have enjoyed enduring popularity, and Mark Gauvreau Judge argues that it is because the story resists
the treacle, opting to stay true to the fragile, imperfect humanity of the characters.
Although Tibbs is an impressive investigator, he is the first to admit at the end of In the Heat of the Night that he was pursuing the wrong man until the end of the investigation.
In the Heat of the Night is well remembered in part because it went on to be adapted for both film and television. However, John Ball’s original novel remains an often-read work that has enjoyed multiple rereleases, speaking to the success of the author. Although much of In the Heat of the Night is told from the points of view of Sam Wood and Bill Gillespie, John Ball’s most acclaimed creation is Virgil Tibbs, a black detective whose work not only brought murderers to justice but also helped overcome racial prejudice.