(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

John Ball’s first mystery in the Virgil Tibbs series, In the Heat of the Night, both catapulted him to popular and critical acclaim and established the central themes of his work. Virgil Tibbs was an instant hit. Appearing as he did at the height of the agitation for civil rights of the mid-1960’s, he incarnated many of the qualities that the public wished to attribute to members of the recently insurgent African Americans. Tibbs is simultaneously proud and circumspect, sensitive to the outrages of prejudice yet aware that public attitudes cannot be forced, only quietly persuaded. Tibbs is a vector in the campaign for universal human tolerance; he forces a recognition of his humanity through his superior achievements.

In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night remains Ball’s most popular and most widely acclaimed book, though it certainly is not his best. It captured and holds the popular imagination more for its setting and its central character than for its style or the quality of the plot. The novel opens in the middle of a heat wave in Wells, a small town in the still-segregated North Carolina of the early 1960’s. The town stagnates in poverty. To improve economic conditions, a local civic organization is sponsoring a musical festival, headed by the great conductor Mantoli. In the small hours of one sweltering morning, Mantoli is found murdered. The local good-old-boy police chief, hired more for availability than skill, lurches into action. Sent to the train station to check for suspects, a deputy spots a likely one: a thirty-year-old black, alone and flashing a suspicious amount of money. The case is apparently already solved.

When the chief interrogates him, however, the man—Virgil Tibbs—states that he has earned that money working as a police officer in Pasadena, California; that unlike anyone on the Wells police force he has experience in homicide work; and that the chief has already made mistakes that could make solving the crime impossible. The chief is dumbfounded. Bad enough to lose a prime suspect, but far worse to have that suspect—a black man—humiliate him in the process. To save face, he resolves to get rid of this rival, but the case has such heavy political and economic implications that he finds himself forced to ask Tibbs to stay on as an officially requisitioned consultant. Meanwhile, tensions rise as the heat continues to bake the town. Economic survival depends on solving the crime and salvaging the festival, tarnished by the murder and shorn of a big-name conductor and impresario. Further, Tibbs threatens the social and racial equilibrium of the segregated town: His position gives him authority over white people accustomed to unanimous consent about keeping blacks in their place.

Throughout this potentially explosive situation, Tibbs keeps his composure, complacently tolerating even the casual insults that segregation imposes on him. He too, however, suffers in the heat: After all, to escape this kind of situation, he had gone to California, where a man could expect to be judged by the quality of his work rather than the color of his skin. Still, he remains professional, methodically proceeding with his investigation and providing lessons in tolerance along the way. Tibbs’s professionalism shows most in his method and attention to detail; in instance after instance, he sees what others overlook, and he is constantly aware of the figure in the pattern he is attempting to reveal. In the process he is able to keep the chief from jeopardizing his own career by arresting the wrong man. Significantly, the climax of the novel occurs when Tibbs deliberately breaches the decorum of segregation by demanding service at a whites-only diner; thus, he is able to demonstrate that bigotry is the real culprit in the case. The novel ends with the chief’s acknowledging that Tibbs is a man; the chief leaves him to await his train on a whites-only bench, though he refrains from shaking hands with Tibbs.

The book is cinematic, as novels of setting and character often are, and its screen adaptation was a phenomenal success. Released in 1967, the film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Sidney Poitier). Still, although this acclaim had much to do with the book’s popularity, the film fails to capture the essence of the novel. The book’s distinction is founded on its depiction of police procedure, its patient analysis of routinely acquired details of fact, and its theme of transracial tolerance—that is, the acknowledgment of our common humanity as the only means of achieving harmonious social order. Before this novel appeared, few American crime writers had centered on painstaking, depersonalized methodology as a basis for their fiction; in other traditions, only Margery Allingham, E. C. Bentley, Michael Innes, and Ngaio Marsh had treated it extensively, and they either emphasize the eccentricity of their police dectectives or place them in quite exceptional situations. As a precedent, the enormously successful television series Dragnet (1951-1959, 1967-1970) must be acknowledged, though even there, attention to eccentricity predominates. Virgil Tibbs reverses this. His ethnicity creates expectations of eccentricity, but Tibbs is the essence of impersonal normality, of basic humanity. His behavior is that of the superior culture: He “outwhites” the whites. His is the dispassionate soul, the cool intellect struggling to understand, and in the process transcending, prejudged...

(The entire section is 2258 words.)