A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Marcia Muller

JOHN BALL – In the Heat of the Night. Harper & Row, hardcover, 1965. Paperback reprints include: Bantam, 1967; Perennial Library, 1985; Carroll & Graf, 1992.

   John Ball is best known for his series of novels about Virgil Tibbs, black homicide specialist with the Pasadena, California, Police Department. While Tibbs was preceded by Ed Lacy’s Toussaint Moore in Room to Swing, he is the first fully realized black series character. This first Tibbs novel is a strong start, in which the author explores racial conflict far from his hero’s usual beat, in the Deep South.

   Wells is a sleepy little Carolina town where nothing much happens; so sleepy, in fact, that some prominent citizens have planned a music festival in hopes of attracting badly needed tourist dollars. Then, on a steamy August night, the conductor hired for the festival is found murdered, and Police Chief Bill Gillespie and Officer Sam Wood have more of a case than they can handle. Help comes unexpectedly when Wood detains a black man passing through town, and the man turns out to be Virgil Tibbs.

   Wells is a typical small town with typical southern racial prejudice, and its lawmen are no exception. Grudgingly they accept Tibbs’s aid, prompted by the urgings of the man who had planned the music festival. And as Tibbs quietly and methodically pursues his investigation, working against the handicap of his racial background, the lawmen each come, in their way, to respect him and acknowledge his exceptional ability.

   In the final confrontation with the killer. Tibbs turns his race to an advantage- proving that what one man considers a handicap can be another’s blessing. This is an engrossing novel with a powerful premise, but it leaves us wishing we had really gotten inside Virgil Tibbs’s mind and viewed the case through the eyes of the book’s most interesting character.

   In the Heat of the Night was made into a 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. Other novels featuring Tibbs are The Cool Cottontail (1966), Johnny Get Your Gun (1969), Five Pieces of Jade (1972), The Eyes of Buddha (1976), and Then Came Violence (1980).

   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.