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.