Monday, May 30, 2022

"In the Heat of the Night" by John Dudley Ball

I've been a fan of the 1967 movie In the Heat of the Night for almost two decades now, but it only recently occurred to me to find and read the book it's based on.  So, I did.  And now, I can say with confidence that if Ball's other Virgil Tibbs are anything like this, I have some really enjoyable reads ahead of me.

It's interesting that this book, which was published in 1965, has a very different tone from the movie.  The movie is dark and gritty and sweaty and determined not to let any characters come off looking totally good, not even Virgil Tibbs.

The book takes a different approach, with less overt racial hostility between the black cop and the white police chief he's trying to help solve a murder in the South.  The racism here is less loud and obvious than in the movie, but it's also more insidious.  Instead of most of the characters instantly jumping to bigoted conclusions about Virgil Tibbs the way they do in the movie, they think they're being very magnanimous and kind and "big" toward him by letting him sit in the front seats of their cars and eat sandwiches in the same room with them.  They believe that they're not behaving in a racist way at all toward him, but only because he's special -- he's educated and smart, and not from around there.

Slowly and gradually, both Chief Gillespie and beat cop Sam Wood start to realize that their long-held ideas about black people and white people are getting challenged and need changing.  I think this is a really effective approach for the book, because a lot of white readers in 1965 would probably have just put this down after a couple chapters if it had been as swift to make them realize they look bad as they are in the movie.  By gradually opening the characters' eyes instead, Ball lets them gently change minds for readers too.  The movie could hit harder and faster, because it was made in a time when people HAD to go to the movie theater to see it and would be less likely to walk out of a movie they'd paid money for, rather than put down a book or hurl it across the room.

The basic plot is the same:  Someone murders a wealthy man from out of town who was planning to bring a lot of business to the little Southern town.  The cops pull in a black man, Virgil Tibbs, who was waiting for a train in the middle of the night, assuming he must be the killer.  But it turns out he's actually a policeman too -- and not just a policeman, but a homicide detective.  Under orders from his boss to help solve this case, Tibbs figures everything out several steps ahead of the small-town cops.

I think Tibbs gets a better character arc in the movie, as he also learns to let go of some racially-charged opinions, and that doesn't happen so much here.  He's also more obviously the main character in that.  Here, there's not a clear main character, though my money would probably be on Sam Wood for that, as he has the clearest character arc, and the book begins with him and shares a lot of his thoughts throughout the story.

Particularly Good Bits:

Above the grill the black stain of hot grease vapor made a permanent monument to thousands of short orders that had been cooked, eaten, and forgotten (p. 4).

Gillespie used his eyebrows for question marks (p. 101).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: R for bad language, racist slurs, descriptions of a naked woman, discussion of a teenage pregnancy, mention of abortion, and a little violence.  It's about on par with the movie, except a bit less violent.

This has been my 42nd book read and reviewed for my third Classics Club list, and my 22nd book read off my TBR shelves for #TheUnreadShelfProject2022.

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