In their debut novel, an outsider is arrested on suspicion of murder in a small town in the southern USA, only to quickly turn out to be innocent and have specialist investigative knowledge which they put to use helping the police and solving the crime. Having highlighted the folly of underestimating someone based on appearances alone, this character goes on to feature in a long-running series of books, two films that will see them forever linked to the actor who portrays them, and a television series. Today, we look at that debut appearance, the first time Jack Reache…uh, Virgil Tibbs sallied forth: In the Heat of the Night (1965) by John Ball.
The tension at the heart of Ball’s book — Tibbs is a black man in the segregated South, whose professional standing affords him a respect which his skin colour does not — echoes to a certain extent the ignorance displayed with regard to racial matters in a lot of writing from before the more socially-conscious 1950s and 60s. The arguable difference here is that the ignorance in the attitudes taken towards Tibbs purely on account of his race is simply a drop in the wider pools of ignorance in which the denizens of Wells seem to wallow. Police Chief Bill Gillespie is perhaps promoted beyond his competence, an outsider viewed with suspicion who doesn’t even know how to process or observe a crime scene properly, and who has yet to even crack the spines on the books he bought upon being appointed; Officer Sam Wood is full of opinions — “Italian girls married early, had too many kids, and got fat.” — which come exclusively from prejudice rather than experience. The echo chamber looms large, and Tibbs might just be the crack that allows the light of realisation to eventually permeate the darkness.
Ball’s coup de grace is never to castigate these people for the opinions they hold, but to present them as, broadly, simply ignorant men doing their best. Wood in particular, through whose eyes we see most of the action unfold, is a superb study in contrasts: remarkably human when he discovers the body of murdered composer Enrico Mantoli in the opening chapter…
Sam reached out his hand and laid it very gently on the back of the man’s head, as though by his touch he could comfort him and tell him that help was coming quickly, that he would only have to lie on the harsh pavement for two or three minutes more, and that in the meantime he was not alone.
…and aware of the power of grief when breaking the news of Mantoli’s death to the man’s friends (“To Sam it seemed as if the man had suddenly grown tired, not the weariness of a single day, but the kind of fatigue that sinks into the bones and remains there like a disease.”) and surprisingly beautiful (Italian) daughter, and yet lazy enough to immediately consider Tibbs “the prime suspect” in the murder because he’s black, and for the longest time unable to pay him a better compliment than agreeing that the homicide specialist “oughta been a white man” on account of his intelligence.
The characterisation of Tibbs is more restrained, with an air of control behind every action, aware of his unwanted presence and why he’s being tolerated (“They had a murder here this morning. They don’t know what to do about it, so they’re using me for a fall guy.”) and simply going about his task in the most direct way possible. There’s an air of Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1930) in the detailing of Tibbs’ investigation in that we’re told a lot of what he does but rarely what he thinks — and yet some very subtle distinctions (“Cash is cash”, say, or his use of the town’s youth in finding the murder weapon) show an acute mind at work, with only one real glimpse of how the man feels about the indignities to which he is subjected:
“[I]t may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”
Of course, Tibbs is also blessed with a certain self-confidence that comes from knowing how to do the job for which he is paid…
“Think you can do any good?” Sam asked.
“I can give you some references,” Tibbs answered.
“They can’t do you much good here if they’re in California,” Sam pointed out.
“They’re in California,” Tibbs acknowledged. “San Quentin.”
Sam decided to shut up and drive.
…so it’s a shame that the means by which he pieces together the answer and identifies the killer are somewhat over-subtle, and don’t quite convince. The fault here is Ball’s for not building a more concrete case around his culprit, but I suppose were there some glaring, devastating clue that made the whole thing patently obvious Tibbs would arguably have picked up on it much sooner and been on his way far more quickly.
Ball writes superbly, however, with the eponymous heatwave which is engulfing Wells as much a character as the people suffering under it (“Although the sun was blazing down now, the intense heat seemed more bearable, largely because he expected the days to be hot. The thing that bothered him was the hot nights, for somehow the darkness and the setting of the sun ought to bring relief. When they didn’t, the discomfort seemed twice as great.”), and the various social and racial divisions within the township explored intelligently. The only false note in the whole thing is the moment near the end when Tibbs becomes lachrymose at Gillespie’s thanks — nothing in the preceding narrative suggests that Tibbs has any interest in Gillespie’s opinion — which feels weirdly forced, and undermines a lot of the intelligent examination of racial politics somehow fitted into this concise, insightful, and propulsive murder mystery.
It was only recently that I became aware of Ball’s novels, having previously had no idea that the Norman Jewison-directed movie starring Sidney Poitier as Tibbs was based on a book (hey, I watched it like 25 years ago), and this experience makes me interested to read further. Virgil Tibbs is easily compelling enough to support his own story, and it would be great to see what Ball did with the character away from Wells…and that response is, perhaps, more important than any flaws I can find here. You can expect more of Mr. Tibbs here in the future.
The Virgil Tibbs novels by John Ball
- In the Heat of the Night (1965)
- The Cool Cottontail (1966)
- Johnny Get Your Gun, a.k.a. Death for a Playmate (1969)
- Five Pieces of Jade (1972)
- The Eyes of Buddha (1976)
- Then Came Violence (1980)
- Singapore (1986)
3 thoughts on “#942: In the Heat of the Night (1965) by John Ball”
I did wonder what you were up to in your opening para … I think Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft might have been an even better fit actually (3 films …) 😆 Ball’s novel was important for all kinds of reasons and great to see it represented here. I prefer the movie version if truth be told. It’s the only one of Ball’s books I have read though. The movie sequels were dire, the TV show somewhat better.
For Whatever It’s Worth:
In his book 101 Greatest Films Of Mystery & Suspense, Otto Penzler writes of how, when John Ball submitted In The Heat Of The Night to Harper & Row, he came under the supervision of that house’s mystery editor, the legendary Joan Kahn.
Per Penzler, Ms. Kahn had Ball extensively rewrite the novel, giving him notes on character, plot, dialogue, et al.
When Heat was published to critical raves, an Edgar award, and a double-extra-large movie sale, apparently the whole thing sent Ball on a major-league ego trip: when he submitted his next novel to Harper, Joan Kahn submitted extensive notes to Ball – which he dismissed out of hand.
After all, hadn’t his novel gotten all those raves, won those awards, gotten made into a Hit Movie, and like that there?
The Upshot: Ball’s sequels (as listed above) didn’t achieve anywhere near the success of Heat in the marketplace; the Sidney Poitier movies didn’t become the box-office franchise that was expected; the Heat TV series shifted the emphasis to Chief Gillespie (with Virgil Tibbs disappearing altogether late in the run).
As I said above, this is Otto Penzler’s account, and since he’s considered the authority on the history of these matters, I tend to accept his word on all this (your mileage may differ, of course).
I simply submit this for the record; should any of you out there find any of the subsequent John Ball novels, by all means write in and tell us all.
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Thanks, Mike, a fascinating prospect. I see that the sequels are currently available as ebooks via a small press, which would imply that they were generally less well-received…so I appreciate the warning that I might be wading into something of inferior quality by reading further.