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John Ball’s 1965 mystery In the Heat of the Night tells the story of a black police officer named Virgil Tibbs who happens to be passing through a southern town at a particularly inauspicious moment. An orchestra conductor has been brutally murdered and the local police, without much in the way of real evidence, arrest Tibbs. On discovering that Tibbs is not the real killer but rather a highly-skilled homicide detective, the local police enlist Tibbs to help solve the case.
Several factors made (and make) this novel so very relevant and timely. For one, the hero is a black police officer, which at the time the book was written was not a very common figure in popular culture. Tibbs’s investigation leads him through the backwater town and exposes him to different forms of prejudice harbored by the townspeople. His urban sophistication and his California background also rankle the townspeople. A major accomplishment with this novel is that author John Ball refuses to discredit one stereotype by merely adopting another. He deftly manages to write a novel about prejudice and stereotype set in a region of the country where ignorance and racism cause terrible suffering, but avoids making the mistake of depicting every Southerner as ignorant or racist. Just as the portrait here of Virgil Tibb’s topples some peoples’ notions, portraits of some Southerners in this novel do the same.
In the Heat of the Night stands as a classic pop culture document. It is also winner of the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America as well as the Crimewriters’ Association’s Golden Dagger Award, and it was named one of the hundred greatest detective novels of the century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. The book’s main character, Virgil Tibbs, also appears in The Cool Cottontail and Johnny Get Your Gun as part of the Virgil Tibbs mystery series.