When I was a kid, borrowing tapes from the local Video Ezy every weekend, I knew when I slid a movie into the VCR I had a few minutes before the film started. What played in the interim was the requisite legal copyright verbiage, and a two minute featurette that was basically clips of various movies, the audio of which I unconsciously memorised, one line in particular, said by Sidney Poitier: “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”
Without context, those words lack the gravitas they merit in both Norman Jewinson’s 1967 film, and the John Ball novel it was adapted from, and published two years earlier: “In the Heat of the Night.” Despite their different intonations — Poitier’s voice is wearied and hardened, whereas it reads a little softer (though no less weary) — the Virgil Tibbs in both mediums are absolutely exhausted by the racial animus saturating the American South, and his simple response to the Chief of Police mocking inquiry about what he’s called back home in Pasadena is searing because of its coolness: in California, Tibbs is a person.
Ball’s novel is a conventional mystery involving the murder of music conductor Enrico Mantoli, whose body is found in the middle of the highway. Chief of Police Bill Gillespie orders Wood to round up any suspicious characters, and Virgil Tibbs fits the bill, waiting for his train back home at the local station. One telephone call to Pasadena later, Tibbs is cleared, and is roped into aiding the Wells police investigation; a scapegoat for the blame to be pinned on, should the case go unsolved.
Noxious racism coruscates through the town of Wells, and Tibbs is a character created by Ball to shatter the townspeople’s preconceptions. He’s almost too good to be true: a brilliant investigator, unruffled in the face of bigotry, impossibly intelligent. These facets are important to the story, but read contrived. Tibbs isn’t human: he’s an archetype. But we accept it, because that’s exactly what the narrative calls for. This is a snapshot of race relations in mid-sixties America during the civil rights movement with a side of murder and mystery. I’m keen to read more in the series, just to see whether Tibbs develops more as a character, and whether the plots become more intricate.
Published: 18 July 2016
Imprint: Peng. Mod. Classics