What are some characteristics of Sam Wood in the book In The Heat of The Night by John Ball?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sam Wood is a police officer in the town of Wells, South Carolina, in John Ball’s 1965 novel In the Heat of the Night. He is a pivotal figure in the murder mystery into which Virgil Tibbs, an African American homicide investigator from California who is passing through Wells, is reluctantly inserted. Ball introduces Sam early in the novel and emphasizes this law enforcement officer’s professionalism, as evident in the following passages describing Sam’s nightly routine while on patrol:

Carefully he spelled out that he had completed a thorough check of the main residential section of the city, as was required, and that he had found it in good order. He took pride in setting down his decision. It made him again conscious, as it had for the past three years, that at this time of night he was the most important man awake and on duty in the entire city.

Should he take his break now or take a pass first through shanty ville, the poor side of town? That was the only part of his job he actively disliked, but it had to be done. Reminding himself again of the importance of his position, he decided to let the break wait for a bit. He slipped the car into gear and moved it away from the curb with the professional smoothness of an expert driver.

While Sam Wood is introduced as the consummate professional, however, he is also a product of his time and place. The American South during the period covered in Ball’s novel remained virulently racist, with blacks kept segregated and destitute. When Sam stops for his break at a local diner, he engages Ralph, the young counterman working the nightshift, in conversation regarding a recent boxing match. This conversation allows for a revelation regarding Sam’s nature, as he comments on the fight’s victor, “I don’t go much for the Italians, but at least a white man gets a chance at the title.” Sam’s racism is deeply embedded in his psyche, as it is with many of the white characters in In the Heat of the Night. It does not set him apart from his community; rather, it illuminates the extent to which he is a "good citizen" of this small southern town.

Sam’s racism does not define his role in Ball’s story. On the contrary, he proves a resourceful presence as Tibbs inches closer to identifying the murderer, a role elevated following the black detective’s exoneration of the white police officer after the latter comes under suspicion as the possible killer. His unwillingness to admit to his evening diversion of driving past Delores Purdy’s home to view her young, naked physique cast him in a negative light, but his dedication to his profession is beyond dispute, and he is further exonerated of the charge of engaging in sexual intercourse with Delores. Sam is a key figure in Ball’s story, and serves as an honorable man tainted by the racism endemic to his community.