Wells is a fictional community in North Carolina whose residents strongly believe in the segregation of blacks from whites. At the police station, blacks have their own washroom—one without soap or hand towels. At the railroad station, blacks are required to stay in a separate area to wait for the train. The town itself has a segment meant to contain the black community. The whites in Wells have gone out of their way to ensure that they will never encounter any evidence to contradict their racial prejudices.
Many of the prejudices expressed by the people of Wells are absurd. Unfortunately, that absurdity does not stop people from believing whatever they choose. When Officer Sam Wood stops for his break at a diner on the outskirts of Wells, he and the counterman attempt to explain why so many blacks succeed at boxing. Sam opines that blacks have a different nervous system from whites, and he even suggests that blacks feel pain like animals rather than like humans. Sam’s views are given without any evidence or experience, yet in Wells they are accepted as truth. This is a town where judgment without evidence is the norm.
Ironically, Officer Sam Wood and Chief Bill Gillespie are investigators; their job is to investigate crimes relying on evidence. However, neither Sam nor Bill has any police training, though Sam at least has read a few instructional manuals on police work. Gillespie, on the other hand, relies on his instincts and his intimidating size to keep the population of Wells in line. However, for all his apparent strength, Gillespie’s position as Chief of Police is rather precarious. Gillespie was hired, in spite of his lack of qualifications, because he would not balk at the social prejudices in Wells. When Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator from California, is brought in to investigate the Mantoli murder, Gillespie is irritated to find himself relying on a black man to solve the case. Paradoxically, the town council insists that Gillespie solve the case quickly but they also urge the chief to discharge Tibbs.
Fortunately, Gillespie is stubborn, and although he would like to get rid of Tibbs, he...
(The entire section is 896 words.)