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....
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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 to leave.
Before long, though, Gillespie decides to let Tibbs investigate after all. The police are under pressure from Mayor Frank Schubert and the town councilors to find the murderer, and Gillespie realizes that the department will look good if Tibbs succeeds. Even better, in Gillespie’s view, the police department will have a scapegoat if Tibbs fails. Tibbs is aware of Gillespie’s intentions but agrees to help anyway.
Gillespie and Tibbs both investigate the case. Tibbs and Wood interview Mantoli’s daughter, Duena, whom Sam finds very attractive. They also meet Eric Kauffman, Mantoli’s assistant and manager, who strikes Sam as “trying to be older, taller, and more important than he was.” Kauffman was out the night of the murder, driving from Atlanta. After a few questions, Tibbs and Wood ask a local minister to have his youth search for the murder weapon, most likely a piece of loose wood that has been discarded somewhere in the city.
Unlike Wood, Chief Gillespie has never even bothered to read any textbooks about police work, and he lacks Tibbs’s experience and training. After Oberst is set free, Gillespie quickly realizes that the murderer may in fact be Sam Wood. Gillespie inspects Wells’s financial records and discovers that Wood has recently deposited a great deal of cash. He has Wood arrested, and almost immediately Delores Purdy and her father come forward to accuse Sam Wood of raping and impregnating Delores, though a careful interrogation by Chief Gillespie reveals that Delores is actually an adult and that she was not raped. The charges are reduced to seduction. Tibbs claims to know who the murderer is and sets out to prove Sam’s innocence. He visits the Purdys. Although they are very prejudiced against blacks, Tibbs insists on informing them that their charges will require further examination, possibly including medical examination to prove that Delores is indeed pregnant. Before long, they come to the station and drop their claims. Tibbs convinces Gillespie to set Sam free. Although Sam was enraged at being imprisoned, he was able to begin a relationship with Duena Mantoli, who visited him.
Wood and Tibbs set out once more on Sam’s nightly routine. Tibbs guarantees that they will find the murderer this night. During their route, they come across Gillespie, who joins them. The three policemen make their way to the diner, where Tibbs reveals that the murderer is actually Ralph.
Back at the station, Tibbs explains that Delores’s accusations were partially true. She is pregnant, but Ralph is the father of the child. Ralph did not want to marry Delores and decided to convince her to get an abortion, a procedure that would require more money than his job as a counterman could provide. Consequently, when he came across Enrico Mantoli one evening, he decided to rob the maestro but accidentally murdered him instead. Although Tibbs seems quite the insightful investigator, he humbly confesses that until the very end of his investigation he was convinced that the murderer was actually Eric Kauffman, whose career would have been aided by taking over the festival.
With the murder solved and the festival now safely being organized, Tibbs can finally leave Wells for California, where he can exist as a man like any other rather than being constantly reminded of racial segregation. Sam is grateful to Tibbs and finds himself now inclined to stand up for blacks. Gillespie takes Tibbs to the railroad station and thanks the black investigator for his time. Gillespie considers shaking hands with Tibbs but decides not to because
he had done it once and that had made the point. To do it again now might be just the wrong action to take.
Ball’s ending suggests that although Tibbs has changed the attitudes about race held by some of Wells’s residents, the prejudice against blacks will not be easily or quickly overcome.