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In the Heat of the Night is a 1965 mystery novel by John Ball set in the community of Wells, South Carolina. The main character is a black police detective named Virgil Tibbs passing through the small town during a time of bigotry and the civil rights movement.

In the Heat of the Night
First edition
AuthorJohn Ball
CountryUnited States
SeriesVirgil Tibbs
PublisherHarper & Row
Publication date
Media typePrint
Followed byThe Cool Cottontail 

The novel is the basis of the 1967 award-winning film of the same name, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Sidney Poitier, as well as a subsequent television series. Ball would feature Tibbs in the subsequent novels The Cool Cottontail (1966), Johnny Get Your Gun (1969), Five Pieces of Jade (1972), The Eyes of Buddha (1976), Then Came Violence (1980) and Singapore (1986).

Plot summaryEdit

Sam Wood, a respected police officer in Wells, South Carolina, patrols the city every night. One night, after stopping at his usual diner for a snack, and discussing Negros unfavorably with Ralph, the night counterman, Sam finds a body in the middle of the highway. He reports the body, which is soon tentatively identified as that of Maestro Enrico Mantoli, the conductor and lead organizer of the city's upcoming music festival.

Bill Gillespie, the chief of police, is notified, and after his arrival sends Sam to the railway station. Sam finds a Negro waiting for a train there, and arrests him on suspicion of murder. Gillespie questions the man, who identifies himself as Virgil Tibbs, a homicide investigator in Pasadena, California. Gillespie confirms this with Virgil's chief, who recommends his services.

The body is soon brought to the morgue, and Gillespie invites Virgil to accompany him. Gillespie performs a cursory examination of the body before leaving to get some breakfast, while Virgil examines the body more thoroughly. Gillespie, meanwhile, suggests that Sam visit Mantoli's daughter and bring her to formally identify the body. When Virgil offers Gillespie the results of his examination, Gillespie declines them, and suggests that Virgil leave Wells. Virgil states that he will not be suing for wrongful arrest, and prepares to leave as another suspect is brought in.

Sam, however, reminds Gillespie of their promise to get Virgil some breakfast, and stops Virgil from leaving as he leaves to see Mantoli's daughter. As a result, Virgil is present for Gillespie's questioning of the suspect, Harvey Oberst, on whom Mantoli's wallet was found. Oberst had previously been in trouble for "playing around" with Delores Purdy, a local teenager whom Sam had seen in the nude while passing her house shortly before finding Mantoli's body. He confesses to taking Mantoli's wallet, but steadfastly denies killing him. Gillespie has him booked, whereupon Virgil states that he does not believe Oberst to be guilty, because he is left handed, and upon investigation, Virgil found out the victim was hit from the right.

Sam, meanwhile, drives to the hilltop home of George Endicott, a city councilman originally from the North, at whose house Mantoli's daughter is a guest. George and his wife Grace are among the lead sponsors of the music festival. Sam delivers the news to George, who offers to identify the body, as Mantoli's daughter is still sleeping. After identifying the body, George offers his assistance to Gillespie, along with pertinent information on Mantoli. Virgil abruptly contributes to this discussion, and gains George's interest. However, Gillespie is angered, and after Sam and George leave the room, dismisses Virgil.

Virgil starts on foot to the railway station, while Gillespie gets a phone call from Frank Schubert, the mayor of Wells. Schubert informs Gillespie that he and George have arranged for Virgil's services from his chief in Pasadena. Gillespie is reluctant to go along until Schubert points out that Virgil could be used as a scapegoat should he fail, and Gillespie could use one, since he was hired only nine weeks earlier and has yet to establish himself as Sam has. Gillespie accepts the proposal, and goes to intercept Virgil. Gillespie assigns Virgil to Mantoli's death, and takes him to a garage run by a Negro mechanic named Jess, who lends him a used car.

Virgil wants to speak with Mantoli's daughter, and Sam takes him to the Endicotts' house. Sam and Virgil meet Mantoli's daughter Duena, to whom Sam is immediately attracted, along with his associate Eric Kaufmann. Virgil gathers information about the music festival, and as he and Sam leave, he announces his intention to speak with Oberst.

Oberst is reluctant to speak with a Negro, but tells Virgil about Delores Purdy, specifically that she had come on to him during a date, whereupon he had been arrested. Oberst also states that he took Mantoli's wallet, which he found by his body, and reported it to Mr. Jennings, the banker for whom he works part-time. Jennings had reported him to the police. Virgil then has Oberst released.

The next day, Ralph reports a missile engineer named Gottschalk to the police; he had stopped at the diner while passing through town on the night of the murder, and he had now again stopped at the diner on his way back. Gillespie hands Gottschalk to Virgil, who questions him briefly before letting him leave. Gillespie worries that Virgil has let another suspect go, but Virgil states that Mantoli was not killed where his body was found, which clears Gottschalk.

That night, Virgil accompanies Sam on his patrol, and asks him to retrace his steps from the night Mantoli was killed, taking the time into account. Sam complies, but decides to take a detour at one point so as to not drive past the Purdys' house. However, after his stop at the diner, where Virgil would not be allowed entry, Virgil asks him why he changed his route.

The next morning, Gillespie receives an anonymous letter threatening him to get rid of Virgil; it angers him and makes him more resolved to keep Virgil. Virgil then arrives and reports Sam's detour. Gillespie defends Sam, stating that he may not have remembered his exact route, but, after Virgil leaves his office, suddenly considers that Sam might have killed Mantoli. He meets with Jennings, who states that Sam recently paid off the mortgage on his house with over $600 in cash. When Virgil reports to him that evening, Gillespie reveals that he has arrested Sam on suspicion of murder; Virgil states that he knows Sam to be innocent.

Gillespie sleeps fitfully that night; the next morning, Delores and her father report to Gillespie that Delores, who is eighteen years old, but who they have let on is sixteen due to her having fallen behind in school due to illness, is pregnant as a result of Sam seducing her.

Virgil, after listening in on Gillespie's meeting with the Purdys, visits the Endicotts and Duena to ask them some more questions, and Duena asks him to bring her down to the police station. Once there, she asks to see Sam. Duena gets Sam to state, while looking her in the eyes, that he did not kill her father. After stating that she believes him, she kisses him.

Virgil stops by Jess's garage to gas up his car, and Jess asks him to stay for supper for the sake of his son Andy. Virgil complies, but while walking back to his car later is ambushed by two men. However, Virgil takes both men down easily, injuring one man's arm in the process. Andy appears and Virgil sends him to call the police. The men are arrested; while the doctor whom Gillespie called treats the injured man, the other man indicates his intention to report Virgil for attacking him. Gillespie informs him that he won't have a case. Gillespie then suggests that it is time for Virgil to leave, but Virgil states that he will leave only after closing the case.

Virgil visits the Purdys the next morning, defying their refusal to receive him, and states that because Sam has not confessed to seducing Delores, she will have to submit to medical testing to confirm her pregnancy in order to have a case against Sam. He also warns them against getting themselves arrested for perjury.

Duena, meanwhile, talks George into taking her to see Schubert, who explains to her how the music festival stands to put Wells on the map. He also tells her that, when the town needed a police chief, Gillespie was hired despite not being the most qualified applicant, because some city councillors insisted on a southerner. He also says that Gillespie is still in his trial period, and will be removed if he is found to have the wrong man in custody, unless he clears things up before too long.

Virgil visits Sam to clear up some details before going to see Gillespie; George and Duena arrive at the same time and Virgil suggests that they hear what he has to say. He also asks that Sam be brought in. Virgil states that Delores has failed to convince him that she was violated, and that she intended for Sam to see her naked and to confront her about it, but Sam wisely ignored it. Between this and the fact that he knows Sam to have a very good reputation, he believes the seduction charge to be a complete lie. The Purdys then arrive and retract their charge against Sam, who decides not to sue for defamation of character.

Virgil then clears up Gillespie's suspicion of Sam as the murderer by saying that the majority of the $600 Sam paid the bank was in coins, and Gillespie releases him. Virgil asks that Sam be restored to his regular duty, and announces his intention to accompany Sam, who will make an arrest by morning.

That night, Sam and Virgil encounter Gillespie during their patrol; he joins them. Sam and Gillespie find Kaufmann at the diner, and then watch as Virgil enters the diner and provokes Ralph into approaching him. Virgil seizes Ralph, and has Sam arrest him as Mantoli's killer.

The next morning, George calls Gillespie to invite him, Sam, and Virgil to a gathering at his house that night. There, George announces that Kaufmann has secured a conductor for the musical festival, and asks him to personally conduct one show. He also announces that the venue will be named the Mantoli Bowl. Virgil is prompted to explain how he solved the case, and reveals that he initially suspected Kaufmann, but became interested in Ralph after he reported Gottschalk as a suspect. He also figured out that Ralph often visited Delores, and when she believed herself to be pregnant, he had the idea to rob Mantoli of enough money to pay for an abortion. He did not intend to kill him.

After the gathering, Gillespie sees Virgil to the railway station.