IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT by John Ball, published in 1965, won the Edgar Award for best first novel in 1966 and was made into the famous film starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger that same year.
I’m not going to talk about the plot as it sticks pretty close in the movie. I will mention minor details that were changed for the film.
Set in Sparta, Mississippi, the novel is a small town, Wells, set in the Carolinas(based on a remark about travel time to Atlanta from Wells, I would guess South Carolina). Tibbs is originally from Sparta in the movie, home visiting his mother. In the novel, he’s just changing trains in Wells after visiting his mother somewhere further south. The murder victim is a rich man in the movie, an orchestra conductor in town in the book setting up shows to revitalize the area. Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia(and San Francisco in the later films), from Pasadena in the novel.
I see the novel as a metaphor for America in it’s attitudes toward blacks. Gillespie and Wood are strongly racist in the beginning and over the course of the novel , their biases slowly start to alter, more so with officer Wood, just from working with Tibbs and observing his intelligence and competence at his job. I’ve always believed that racism is learned because people have a instinctive fear of something different and unknown to them. Being around people and learning to know them. education, is all it takes to make one realize, whatever our differences, there is too much about us that is the same.
This country is slowly learning, though not nearly as fast as I thought they would when I was a young man.
Tibbs’ most famous line in the movie is here in the novel. Commenting on the name Virgil, kind of high class, what do they call you in Pasadena? “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”
I grew up in the south in the early sixties and was witness to some of the things black people experienced, though not the worst. When I was a child, I remember coming home from a long trip with the Preacher of our church, after dark, and passing a field with a giant, burning cross and a mob of people surrounding it. I didn’t know what was going on then.
It was there, I just wasn’t exposed to it. My grandfather bought a small grocery store the year I was born(1949) and from the earliest I could remember, he sold to both black and white families. He took phone orders for those that couldn’t make it to the store for whatever reason and delivered them. Many times I helped carry orders into black homes and never thought anything about it.
As I said, a learned response. I watched grandfather interact with all sorts of people, never treating anyone any different from anybody else.
I like this novel, ugly as it was in spots. It highlighted a black man doing a job, despite the callous treatment by almost everyone he met, changing a few in the process. It also gives one a slice of life in this country that should have been put behind us a long time ago. We spend way too much time being divisive instead of working on the many severe problems we face,
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT is the first of seven featuring Virgil Tibbs and I highly recommend them to any who haven’t read them.
David Cranmer said:
I’ve seen the movie many times and yet have never read the book. And wasn’t aware there was a series of seven books.
Btw was the film sequel any good?
Patti Abbott said:
Me, too. One of those movies that was so seamlessly done, you don’t even think about the book.
Todd Mason said:
Oh, Patti, shame. The book is fine, and so are the sequels I’ve read, which is more than I can say for the second film, THEY CALL ME MISTER TIBBS! or the television series (the third film, THE ORGANIZATION, is pretty good if rough in spots, and Poitier/Tibbs wears one of the ugliest sports jackets I’ve ever seen, so much so that it’s memorable–mud plaid. Also an early credit for Daniel Travanti and Raul Julia). In fact, John Ball was apparently so unimpressed with the changes to HEAT for filming, and/or with how he was treated by the film people, that he made sure that the second novel, THE COOL COTTONTAIL, was essentially unfilmable in the mid ’60s, if not a few years later, by setting it largely in a nudist/naturist colony. The tv series would’ve done well to follow the novels, and return Tibbs to Pasadena and the multi-ethnic force he was a part of, with his partner Bob Nakamura, for example. Randy, does your citation of the seven novels include the short stories Ball published in EQMM and perhaps elsewhere? I didn’t ever see them collected, but wouldn’t be surprised if they were, and should check that now.
gary dobbs said:
I’ve seen the movie but also have not read the book. I’ll look on Ebay for it.
Patti Abbott said:
Apparently I was reading the wrong crime novels all my life. I realize that more and more.
randy Johnson said:
Scott, no short stories have been gathered to my knowledge. I will admit the last two novels are still in my TBR pile, though.
Patti, David, the five novels I’ve read are very good, worth checking out, and I have no doubt the last two will be as well.
Todd Mason said:
The excellent Bill Contento online indices cite only three Tibbs short stories in EQMM, so a chapbook, or inclusion in a theoretical reprint of one of the novels, would/should/could be effected:
John Ball: (stories)
One for Virgil Tibbs (ss) EQMM Feb 1976
Virgil Tibbs and the Cocktail Napkin (ss) EQMM Apr 1977
Virgil Tibbs and the Fallen Body (ss) EQMM Sep 1978
(Not Scott, Randy, but I’ve been called much worse…)
randy Johnson said:
Todd. sorry for the stupid mistake. I knew better. Senility, maybe.
Charles Gramlich said:
I had no idea there was more than one book either. Iwatched a few episodes of the series and enjoyed it but never became a regular viewer.
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Excellent review. I have yet to read the book but I’ve seen the film several times. Will have to check the book out now.
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