Friday, July 13, 2007

In the Heat of the Night: John Ball

Just as movie sequels almost always end up not being as good as the first in the series, so have re-reads of books turned out for me. Of course, there are glorious exceptions. Like Godfather in the film world. And In the Heat of the Night for me.

When I first read Heat many years ago, what struck me was the tightness of the plot, the sharpness of the characterization, and the evocative nature of the simple language. Now, when I re-read it, the feeling is exactly the same.

Written in the mid-1960s, Heat is a compelling narrative on racial discrimination in the small towns of America’s Deep South. Not only the fact that the “n” word was used commonly, openly, and offensively, but that a black person was just not expected to be good, and even if he is, the grudging admiration ends up demonstrating discrimination in the most chilling manner: “Smartest black I ever saw. He oughta been a white man.”

Heat can be read just for the characterization of Virgil Tibbs. He who is Virgil to the local cops of the city of Wells, who is always Tibbs to the narrator. How he maintains his dignity in the face of blatant discrimination and ill-treatment, and how he gradually earns Chief Bill Gillespie’s (grudging) admiration is truly impressive.

Purely as a police procedural, Heat delivers as well. Red herrings, misjudgments, the odd piece of luck, all come together well with the rigorous approach Virgil Tibbs follows in his investigation, piecing together clues like the weather (the title ensures we don’t miss that clue), the state of the victim’s palms, and the behavioral traits of the victim to track the murderer.

Even the movie version could not mess with Heat – Norman Jewison deserves credit for sticking to the book faithfully, and Sidney Poitier does a splendid job as Virgil Tibbs.

It is no surprise that Heat won an Edgar Award and a Golden Dagger, and was selected one of the top hundred detective novels of the century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

When I read Heat for the first time, I almost took a day off college to finish reading it. When I read it this time, I almost took a day off work to do likewise. Don’t be surprised if you feel the same once you start it. Safer still, start off on it on a Friday evening – you’ll finish it by Saturday morning.

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