Wednesday, March 19, 2014

In the Heat of the Night: John Ball

In the Heat of the Night by John Ball was published in 1965. It was Ball's first book and it won the Edgar for Best First Novel.

I enjoyed reading this book; I read it in few hours in one sitting, which is very rare for me. Some of my enjoyment may have been affected by knowing the story, since I have seen the movie adaptation several times. The movie and the book are not identical, but close enough so that I knew what to expect with both the characters and the resolution of the crime.

In this book, however, the main story is not the crime but the racial prejudice which leads a sheriff to make the assumption that a black man waiting in a railroad station with a wallet full of money must be guilty of a crime. This book does a very good job of showing us the extreme prejudice against blacks at the time, and illustraties the barriers that racial and ethnic stereotypes lead to.  The book is set in a small town in South Carolina.

Soon, the sheriff has discovered that Virgil Tibbs, who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, is not his culprit and is, in fact, an experienced police detective, visiting from Pasadena, California. He ropes Tibbs into working with him to solve the crime; he sees that it is a no lose situation. If Tibbs fails, Tibbs is blamed; if  Tibbs helps solve the crime, the sheriff gets the credit.

Much is made of the reaction of the community members to being questioned by a black man. He cannot stay in the hotels that will not serve blacks. Most people treat him abominably. The sheriff insists on calling him Virgil, as a show of disrespect. The tensions and the inequities of that that time and place come across very well.

I was raised in Alabama and I was living there when this book came out. Just a few years before, Birmingham, Alabama was the center of marches for civil rights and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, resulting in the death of four young black girls. Yet, I don't remember anyone as blatantly prejudiced as the people we encounter in this book. It could have been my own family experience; it could have been that I was in a big city. It doesn't really matter because that level of animosity against a different race does happen. This book shows people experiencing the gradual awakening that this person they are dealing with is a competent person, with intelligence and feelings and pride in his abilities.

We see much of the story from the point of view of Sam Wood, who works under the sheriff. The sheriff is new to town, not experienced in this type of work, and he and Sam don't get along. Sam is conscientious and tries to do a good job regardless. But he is predisposed to give Virgil Tibbs the benefit of the doubt, although he has the same ingrained biases as most other people in town. I found Sam to be a very interesting character.

I also liked that a couple of the characters, the murder victim and his daughter, were Italian. The point is made that some people are biased against other ethnic groups also. In this case, they were well to do and staying with an influential family, so they were accepted. The dynamics of the small town in need of revenue, and the politics of the leaders of the town trying to run Tibbs out of town, also added to the tension.

John Ball continued the Virgil Tibbs series with six more books and a few short stories. I will be looking for the next one in the series. I will be re-watching the movie soon also.

This book was also recently reviewed at: Col's Criminal Library and Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog.

17 comments:

  1. Tracy - I'm so glad you highlighted this book and of course, especially glad you enjoyed it. It really is a solid look at prejudice and how it affects work as well as personal lives. That said, I think the mystery in the novel is solidly-done too. No wonder it won the Edgar.

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    1. Margot, it is amazing it took me so long to read this. Glad I did finally.

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  2. Tracy, great review and I'm glad you enjoyed it. Interesting to get your first hand take on race, thanks.
    Hope you read more - me too, though I don't know when!

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    1. Col, I think I have already said in posts how books about the South and race relations are hard to read (for me). It is good that they make me think and reminisce but there is so much I don't remember and it puzzles me. Regardless, it was good to finally read this book. I have high hopes in getting to the next couple of books featuring Tibbs because I think that they are quite short too.

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  3. Hey Tracy, terrific review with your own added experiences in Alabama. I live in Texas but I wasn't even born yet when this book was published. I did buy more books in the series that I plan to read this year. He also wrote a series featuring a police chief Jack Tallon. I thought the racism in this book was quite blatant as well. It took some getting used to if you know what I mean.

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    1. Keishon, the author did note that the people had been raised in this environment and had no other experiences, but it was still hard to take. Very interesting. I was raised to be against segregation, which was unusual among my friends, but the actual implementation of change (and getting used to it) is traumatic whether it is good or bad.

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  4. Like, I'm sure, many people, I have seen the film but not read the book. It sounds very good, and like all your other commenters, your own personal take on the time and place added a lot.

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    1. Moira, it was a good book. First time through, I wasn't that impressed with the style of writing. But I reread portions and wondered why I felt it was too plainly spoken and unadorned, so I think this is one that benefits from rereading. And being short, will be no problem to do that.

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  5. Excellent review, Tracy. Thanks for sharing your own experience in Alabama. I saw the movie first and then read the novel which made it easier to imagine Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs. I agree with your assessment of Sam Wood. I thought he was the key character in the book, a sort of balancer between Virgil Tibbs and Bill Gillespie. Also, in spite of his racist bias against Tibbs, I found the sheriff's character accommodative of the Pasadena detective, at least in so far as allowing him to remain on the case despite strong opposition from the town's influential white folk and acknowledging Tibbs' success with the case were concerned. The sponsorship of a musical event in the little unknown town seeking recognition added a nice touch to the overall narrative.

    I've a few more Virgil Tibbs novels that I still have to read. What struck me most about John Ball's writing was its starkness, writing without embellishment, so to speak.

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    1. Prashant, the relationships of the various policemen in the town and Virgil Tibbs was interesting and evolved throughout the book.

      That is a very good way to put it, writing without embellishment.

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  6. Aww Tracy thanks for the link. You didn't have to do that :-) Thank You. And glad I came back here. I agree with everything you guys said about Sam Wood being a key character. He started out wanting to see Gillespie fail but when Virgil came along well, you know the rest.

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    1. Keishon, I definitely wanted to link to your review and Col's. Even though we all liked the book a lot, we each saw different things in it.

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  7. Terrific to have a review from such a personal perspective TracyK - as I recall the film departs quite substantially from the book in the last third or so of the story but I remember linking it too but perhaps I need to read it again as I remember the movie much better having seen it more recently. Are you going to review the movie too?

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    1. Sergio, I will be reviewing the movie. It will be interesting to come from the perspective of having read the book now. My first book to movie submission of the year, once I get it done.

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  8. TracyK: I am curious whether your images of Virgil and the Sheriff from the book were the characters in the movie.

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    1. Good question, Bill. Half and Half. Virgil seemed much like the character played by Poitier. To me the sheriff seemed different. I will have to refresh my memory when I re-watch the movie, but I think the sheriff in the book is younger and taller than the character in the movie.

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  9. Thanks so much for sharing this review and your own experience. The book has been on so many "Best of" lists...it's kind of shameful that I haven't read it yet.

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