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.
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.