In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

“They call me Mr Tibbs.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When night patrolman Sam Wood finds a dead man in the street, it’s quickly apparent the man has been murdered. It also transpires he’s a prominent person – Maestro Enrico Mantoli, a famous conductor who was organising a music festival in the town. The new police chief, Bill Gillespie, has never run a murder investigation before. In fact, he hasn’t much experiencing of policing at all – he was mainly hired because of his intimidating air of authority and his willingness to uphold this Alabama town’s resistance to change in the face of the Civil Rights movement. He orders Sam to check around for anyone who looks like he might be trying to leave town. When Sam comes across a black man sitting quietly in the Colored waiting room of the train station and discovers he has a sizeable amount of cash in his wallet, it seems the case is closed. Until the black man reveals his identity to Gillespie – Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator with the Pasadena police, who’s passing through Wells on his way back north after visiting his mother…

I seem to have spent a lot of time recently reading about the American South around the time of the Civil Rights movement. This book is fundamentally a crime novel with a very good plot and some excellent detection elements. But it’s far more than that – it paints an entirely believable picture of being a black man in a town that’s run by the whites for the whites at a time when segregation and racism were still entirely acceptable. It also takes us into the minds of the white people, though, showing how they are the product of their conditioning, and how they react when they are forced to reassess the things they take for granted about their own racial superiority.

(I do have one niggling reservation, about me rather than the book. It was written by a white man showing the perspective of a black man in the American South, and I am a white Scotswoman, so although it rings wholly true to me, I can’t help feeling I’m not the best person to judge the portrayals of either race in that place and time. That said, on with the review!)

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in the 1967 film of the book

Gillespie is prevailed upon by his superiors to bring Tibbs in on the investigation. He has mixed feelings about it – on the one hand, he doesn’t want to be shown up by a despised black man; on the other hand, if the case isn’t solved, then he can blame Tibbs. Sam Wood ends up as a sort of unofficial partner to Tibbs, and although he’s a much nicer man than Gillespie, he too has to fight his repugnance to treating a black man as in any way equal. There are all sorts of subtle nuances that show how pervasive racism is in this society, like the white people all calling Tibbs Virgil, while he is supposed to refer to them by their title and surname, or like Sam’s unease at Tibbs sitting in the front seat of their car.

Book 46 of 90

In fact, Tibbs is the one who is most at ease with himself and with the situation. He grew up in the South, knows the rules and conforms to them, never arguing about being forced to use the Colored washroom or not being allowed to eat in the diner, nor openly objecting to the overt racist language directed at him. But he’s worked in California, a place where racism still exists for sure, but not in this formalised, legally endorsed way. While the white men think they’re superior to Tibbs because of their race, Tibbs is well aware of his own superiority in training and experience. But he’s human enough to need to prove it, so he’s driven to stay and solve the case rather than taking the easy option of simply getting on the next train out of town.

John Ball

The plot itself is very good, and the investigation takes us through all the levels in this society from rich to poor, from the cultural leaders involved in setting up the music festival, to the political class, increasingly divided between the socially conservative and the more liberal elements, to the poor people trying to scratch a living in a town that has lost its biggest employer and is struggling to find a new purpose.

But it’s undoubtedly the characterisation that makes this one special. Tibbs himself is likeable, a hero it’s easy to root for. Woods and Gillespie are more complex and they each grow and learn over the course of the investigation, about police-work but also about themselves. It avoids a saccharine wholesale conversion to woolly brotherhood-of-man liberalism on their parts, but gives hope that people and society can change, given patience and the right circumstances.

An excellent book that deserves its status as a classic of the genre – well written and plotted, and insightful about race and class at a moment of change. Highly recommended.

Book 6 of 20

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43 thoughts on “In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

  1. This is one of those rare cases where book and film are both very good, FictionFan. And the characters are, indeed, rich and nuanced. You make an interesting point about the perspective, but I do think the story is a thorough, thoughtful exploration of society along with being a well-written book. And in some places, that unease is still not very far under the surface… An excellent review as ever!


    • Thanks, Margot! Yes, I re-watched the film after I’d read the book and they really are both excellent, though there are some differences, mostly of emphasis. If I had to choose, I think the book would win – as usual, there’s more room for nuance in the book and the characterisation is subtler. Indeed, all this accidental reading I’ve been doing about the Civil Rights era seems depressingly contemporary…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I had a feeling you would rate this one highly. 😄 I hope you’ll have an opportunity to see the film adaptation as well. Would love to hear your thoughts on it.


    • Excellent review about an excellent award winning movie, the theme of which still echoes in my head. That book and movie is tough, and still shocking for those of us who were living far from the south, no clue how bad it was.


      • Thank you! The film is great – one of the rare times when it would be hard to choose between it and the book. In some ways the Civil Rights period does seem like a long time ago and yet in other ways it seems all too contemporary. No doubt that it’s a great setting for fiction, though!


    • I’ve seen the film many times and re-watched it just after reading the book. I’m maybe going to do a film of the book post if I get my act together, but they are very alike with just some changes in emphasis. Both great!


  3. Somehow I missed this one, both book and film. My loss, from your review, and one I definitely need to remedy. Glad you found it enjoyable, despite all the changes from that time to now.


    • If you don’t have time to fit in the book, I really do recommend the film – it’s a true classic too and I’d be hard put to say which is better. I liked that the book showed a reasonably nuanced picture of the South, with good and bad in both the white and black characters. It felt pretty believable to me…


    • I only recently discovered the film had been based on a book. It’s well worth reading – I re-watched the film after I’d read it and I’d be hard put to choose which is best, There are some differences in emphasis, but they really are both classics.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t guess I knew it was originally a book! I feel sure I’ve seen the film version, but I know I use to watch and enjoy the television series (starring Carroll O’Connor and Howard Rollins). Being a white woman who grew up in the American South, perhaps I should read the book and see what I think of the portrayal. 😉 Ultimately, I believe it all depends on whose perspective is tapped, as I’m sure it could vary from person to person or place to place.

    On a side note, but not totally unrelated, have you ever read Dispatches from Pluto by Richard Grant? I highly recommend it if you’re interested in knowing more about race relations (and life in general) in the American South.


    • I only recently found out the film had been based on a book! I love the film – it’s great casting with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger and they both turn in great performances. I didn’t know there’d been a TV series – I wonder if it wasn’t shown over here. I must look and see if it’s available anywhere. I’d be interested in hearing what you think of it if you ever find time to read it – I thought it was a fairly nuanced picture, but what do I know? 😉

      No, I’ve never heard of it. Thanks for the recommendation -it looks fascinating! It’s such an interesting subject, though it’s depressing that it’s still so relevant. Maybe one day we’ll get beyond our murky pasts on both sides of the Atlantic!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I do prefer my crime novels to have complex and interesting character, occur in time and place which really adds to the storyline and helps set the atmosphere, and it doesn’t hurt either if I learn something along the way (demanding? me??). Sounds like this one has it all. Interesting comment about perspective, but I guess there is no right or wrong, just different perspectives.


    • Haha! Nothing wrong with being demanding – me too! Yes, this one is exactly my kind of thing – interesting setting and time period, excellent characterisation and I found the attitudes very believable and quite nuanced. Yes, that’s true about perspectives, but since I’ve been reading a lot of American fiction with race as a theme I’ve realised from reviews on Goodreads that sometimes things that seem fine to me have provoked totally different reactions in either white or black American readers, so I’m now more dubious about my own reaction…


  6. I’d always been intrigued by this, even though I never actually saw the film adaptation, thinking the book must be worth reading. But I never saw a copy of the novel so it’s good to know there’s an anniversary edition available, especially now I’ve read this laudatory review!


    • I’ve loved the film for decades but only recently realised it was based on a book. I usually prefer the book, but in this case I’d find it hard to choose between them. The book maybe has more depth but the film has a bit more power, I think. Both are excellent – I hope you get a chance to read and watch them sometime!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve added this one to my list, it sounds too good to miss. Are you reading about the Civil Rights movement on purpose or are so many books set in this time and place just finding their way to you?


    • No, it’s been totally coincidental, but it’s worked out really well at giving lots of different perspectives of a similar time. I guess maybe a disproportionate amount of American fiction is about the Civil Rights era because it was so important and is still resonating, maybe…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, that makes sense. I suppose it is the same with books set during war times and other important times in a country’s history. Sometimes one book leads to another because the first sparks an interest and other times books just turn up… I can’t figure it out.


  8. I like the sounds of this one-a white and black man ‘forced’ to solve a case together in the deep south? Hot diggity, that sounds ripe for conflict and some great confrontations.


  9. The context of this story really interests me especially as you (from your, and likely my) perspective think it’s well written. I have recommended my library purchase it, so I hope they do!


    • I must admit the whole subject of race in America is fascinating – though I expect more fun to read about than to live through! All countries have problems with racism, of course, but the way it’s played out in the US is so different. I hope your library buys it – it’s a true classic, and I think you’ll enjoy it. 🙂


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