My Throwback Thursday review is for –
In the Heat of the Night by John Ball is one of those classic novels that does so much more than transcend the genre, it lays the foundation for it. The African American Detective who demanded respect not only for his actions, but for his intellect as well. Truthfully one has to imagine that there would never have been a John Shaft, Easy Rawlins, or Alex Cross; had there not been Virgil Tibbs. This is also, to be noted, a disappearing genre. Is there a mainstream popular current detective character in fiction right now that is African American? I would wonder if you could name more than two, and no fair naming the ones I already have.
“…You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you, Virgil,’ Gillespie retorted. ‘Incidentally, Virgil is a pretty fancy name for a black boy like you. What do they call you around home where you come from?’
‘They call me Mr. Tibbs,’ Virgil answered…”
It is the 1960s, in the small southern town of Wells, South Carolina, a man is found dead on the highway. It turns out to be a visiting musician who is heading an upcoming festival in town. A festival likely to revive the community economically and socially. The policeman on patrol, Sam Wood, who finds the body goes in search of the killer and finds a lone man waiting for the train to arrive to take him out of town. A lone black man with a wallet full of cash. Woods arrests the man immediately for the murder. At the station, the man is questioned by the Chief of Police, Bill Gillespie.
“…Where did you get the money for your train fare?’
Before the prisoner could answer, Sam came to life. He fished the Negro’s wallet from his own pocket and handed it to Gillespie. The chief looked quickly in the money compartment and slammed the wallet down hard onto the top of his desk. ‘Where did you get all this dough?’ he demanded, and rose just enough from the seat of his chair so that the prisoner could see his size.
‘I earned it,’ the Negro said.
Gillespie dropped back into his chair , satisfied. Colored couldn’t make money like that, or keep it if they did, and he knew it. The verdict was in, and the load was off his shoulders.
‘Where do you work?’ he demanded in a voice that told Sam the chief was ready to go home and back to bed.
‘In Pasadena, California.’
Bill Gillespie permitted himself a grim smile. Two thousand miles was a long way to most people, especially to colored. Far enough to make them think that a checkup wouldn’t be made. Bill leaned forward across his desk to drive the next question home.
‘And what do you do in Pasadena, California, that makes you money like that?’
‘I’m a police officer,’ he said…”
Gillespie finds himself in a precarious position. He could release Tibbs and put him on the first train back to California or perhaps, to appease the progressive powers that be, use Tibbs to help solve the murder. If Tibbs succeeds, Gillespie can take the credit and show how forward thinking he is, or if Tibbs fails, then he can blame it all on Tibbs and come away clean. For Tibbs, it is just the difference between right and wrong. From catching a killer or letting him go free.
Virgil Tibbs must now navigate between the sensibilities of the south and his position in it and the hunt for a killer. And he must do so in a very short amount of time. But there is more than just the investigation at stake. In the small town of Wells, South Carolina, it doesn’t sit well with the some of the citizens that a black man has the right to question them and soon, Tibbs is in danger of his own life. And policeman or not, he knows there is no one he can turn too.
It is 1965. Martin Luther King is marching on Selma and Montgomery, Alabama. Malcolm X is assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem and it also the year of the riots in Watts.
In this year, the novel, In the Heat of Night by John Ball is published and an African American hero is born. In 1965, amidst all this, Detective Virgil Tibbs is given life two short years later, Sidney Poitier will win the oscar for his portrayal. It should also be noted that Ball had to fight his editors and his publisher to keep his central character, Virgil Tibbs; African American.
Granted, this is far from the first time that an African American detective was introduced into the literary mainstream, but Ball was far more courageous than that. His detective was not situated in Harlem or L.A. or any city in America where the African American culture held sway. No, Ball (with some serious set of balls) drops Virgil Tibbs in the south. In a little town of Wells, South Carolina. On his own, in the heat of the night.
Again, a serious set of balls.
Tibbs also uses his brain, far more than his brawn, though he is not adverse to using his physical skills when necessary. No does he use his overwhelming sex appeal, ala John Shaft, to solve the crime either. No he uses the one thing that the southern white man of the time is most feared of. He uses his intellect. Something he is not even suppose to possess.
There are novels in today’s colleges and high schools that kids are required to read.
John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night should be at the top of this list for American literature.