Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1322
John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night was published in 1965 against the backdrop of the American civil rights movement. Set in North Carolina, In the Heat of the Night follows a black Californian detective, Virgil Tibbs, who is asked to help the local police force investigate a murder. Ball uses this police procedural to discuss social issues related to race.
In the Heat of the Night opens on a hot and humid August night in the fictional North Carolina town of Wells. Sam Wood is a police officer driving his nightly rounds. For the third time this week, he notices that Delores Purdy, a sixteen-year-old, is up in the middle of the night without any clothes on. Sam notes that Delores is attractive, but he decides that she is repulsive and dirty before he drives to a diner on the outskirts of town to take his break.
At the diner, Sam strikes up a conversation with Ralph, the counterman. In Wells, the discrimination against blacks is largely unquestioned, and the town's racist attitudes are revealed when Ralph and Sam discuss the Italian boxer, hoping he will be able to defeat one of the black boxing champions. When questioned as to why so many blacks succeed at boxing, Sam explains that blacks “haven’t got the same nervous system” as whites because they are “like animals; you’ve got to hit ’em with a poleax to knock ’em down.” The conversation is not a rant but is rather a commonplace discussion, which Ball employs to reveal the deeply ingrained racism of the American South at this time. Ralph and Sam go on to discuss Enrico Mantoli, a notable conductor who is organizing a classical music festival for Wells. Although Sam and Ralph agree that the festival is unimportant, they hope it will bring some money into the town.
Sam leaves the diner and is driving back into Wells when he discovers a man lying in the street. Sam has not had any formal training in police work, but he recalls having read in a textbook that he should not assume a victim is dead, so he calls for an ambulance by radio before leaving his car. However, when he inspects the scene, he discovers that the man is dead. Worse, the dead man is Mr. Mantoli, the director of Wells’s coming music festival.
The Wells police force reacts quickly. Bill Gillespie, the chief of police, calls for a doctor and a photographer to be sent to the scene. Mantoli’s wallet has been stolen, which suggests a possible motive. Meanwhile, Sam is instructed to head to the railroad station to see if anyone is trying to leave Wells. Upon arriving at the station, Sam discovers a man whom he finds suspicious. This is a black man who is obviously an outsider. Wasting no time with questions, Sam discovers that the black man’s wallet is unusually thick, suggesting that he may indeed be the murderer. Sam takes the black man, who has yet to speak, back to the police headquarters.
The black man is Virgil Tibbs, a police officer from Pasadena, California. Gillespie and Wood are suspicious of the idea that an African American could be a police officer, but a wire to Pasadena not only confirms Tibbs’s claim but also reveals that he is an expert in homicide investigations. In contrast, Gillespie, for all his authority and confidence, does not know anything about investigating homicides. Reluctantly, they accept Pasadena’s advice to consult Tibbs on the case. Tibbs agrees to inspect Mantoli’s corpse. However, before Tibbs can report on his findings, he is dismissed. The police have picked up Harvey Oberst, who has been found with Mantoli’s wallet in his pocket. However, a brief interrogation reveals that Oberst is not the murderer. Tibbs explains that the killer is right-handed and Oberst is not. In spite of his expertise and experience with homicide investigation, both of which are missing in Wells, Tibbs is again asked...
(The entire section contains 1322 words.)
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