And It’ll be All Right in the Heat of the Night*

As this is posted, it’s fifty years since the release of Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (an adaptation of John Ball’s 1955 novel). As you’ll know, its focus is Virgil Tibbs, a black Philadelphia police detective who ends up getting involved in investigating a murder in Sparta, Mississippi. Among other things, the film explores the issue of the integration of police forces.

But it’s certainly not the only crime story that takes up this topic. Many police departments have had to evolve as qualified non-white officers joined them. In some cases, it has been, and continues to be, a difficult transition. But even in cases where it’s gone relatively smoothly, it can still make for an interesting layer of character development. It’s realistic, too, as more and more police forces diversify.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in Madras (today’s Chennai) in the early 1920’s – the last years of the British Raj. Le Fanu’s assistant is Sergeant Mohammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. Habi is the first Indian member of the Madras Crime Unit, which doesn’t please everyone:

‘Indianisation was a dirty word, Habi’s appointment an unwanted symbol of change.’

But Le Fanu has learned that his sergeant has a good education and is good at his job. He’s got a fine future; and although that upsets plenty of people, it doesn’t Le Fanu. He’s happy to have a man of Habi’s skills on the team. Still, Habi knows that he has to be twice as good to get half as far, as the saying goes.

Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that he’s half white/half Aborigine. He’s very good at what he does, and he knows the bush very well. So, the fact that he’s not white doesn’t prevent him from having a successful police career. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t raise eyebrows at times, and get the occasional comment. Bony’s accustomed to coping with that sort of thing, though, and finds ways to get people to feel comfortable with him.

Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town takes place in 1974 Atlanta, and features Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy, two detectives who have a very difficult time fitting in in what is still very much a man’s world. When a fellow officer, Don Wesley, is shot, Lawson and Murphy join the investigation team. Although their contributions are not taken very seriously, they are determined to find out the truth. Sexism in the police force is certainly a main topic in this novel. But it’s also set within the context of the racism that still permeates the police at the time the book takes place. There are black police officers (of both sexes). But they definitely have second-class status at the station. They rarely interact with their white counterparts unless they need to; even changing rooms are not occupied by whites and blacks at the same time.

Times have changed in the last decades, and we see this evolution in the genre. For instance, Kate Ellis’ The Merchant House introduces Detective Sergeant (DS) (later Detective Inspector (DI)) Wesley Peterson. In this novel, he and his wife, Pam, have recently moved from London to Tradmouth, in Devon, where Peterson is to take up his duties with the local CID. He’s no sooner settled in when he and the team get involved in the investigation of the murder of a young woman whose body is found at Little Tradmouth Head. In one plot thread of this novel, the team works to find out who the dead woman was and who would have wanted to kill her. At first, Peterson’s a little concerned about how well he’ll fit in in Tradmouth. For one thing, he’s from London. For another, he’s black, and his colleagues are all white. While it’s true that he does get the odd joke about being from London, his race doesn’t really matter to his colleagues. In fact, he learns that his predecessor was terminated because of racist and sexist comments and actions. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Peterson’s race never figures into the stories. It is a part of his identity. But, for the most part, he’s a good detective who happens to be black, and his white colleagues care much more about the former than about the latter.

The same might be said about Peter James’ Glenn Branson. He serves as second-in-command to Superintendent Roy Grace of the Brighton and Hove Police. It’s made clear throughout the series that Branson is black. But that fact doesn’t matter to Grace and the other team members. The members of the team tease each other, as happens when people work closely together. But there aren’t any racially-charged remarks – even as ‘just a joke.’ He’s a valued colleague who just happens to be black.

That doesn’t mean there are never any challenges faced by non-white police offers. Just ask Jamal Hamad, whom we meet in Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. He’s lived most of his life in Sweden, but is originally from Lebanon. Now, he’s one of a team of police detectives who work under the supervision of Stockholm Detective Inspector (DI) Conny Sjöberg. In this novel, the team is investigating a set of murders that seem on the surface not to be linked. They are, though, of course, and the team has to put the pieces of the puzzle together to find the event from the past that links them. In the meantime, one of the team members, Petra Westman, is ‘date-raped’ one night, and decides to find out who’s responsible. At one point, she has an interesting conversation with Hamad. Here’s what he has to say about being a non-white person on a white police team:

‘‘But it’s ‘Ramadan’ this and ‘Mohammad’ that, one thing after another. Just little things, but it all adds up…’’

In this case, it’s not that Hamad’s colleagues refuse to work with him, or sabotage his work because he’s not white. In fact, he says that he knows Westman likes and respects him. And she does. But he’s still made to feel different – ‘other’ – whenever anyone makes a remark.

In The Heat of the Night offers an exploration of what happens when a police force diversifies, and not everyone’s comfortable with that. There are several other crime novels, too, that take up the same topic. These are just a few: your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Quincy Jones, Marilyn Bergman and Alan Bergman’s In the Heat of the Night, with Ray Charles’ unforgettable vocals.


Filed under Arthur Upfield, Brian Stoddart, Carin Gerhardsen, John Ball, Karin Slaughter, Kate Ellis, Norman Jewison, Peter James

20 responses to “And It’ll be All Right in the Heat of the Night*

  1. One book which I really enjoyed featuring a Muslim detective in the American context: Ash Rashid in The Abbey by Chris Culver. He finds it hard to deal with some of his investigations, and the unresolved cases have drive him to drink, in direct conflict with his faith. And he does occasionally hear his colleagues make prejudiced comments about him.

    • Thanks, Marina Sofia. I’ve heard good things about that one, ‘though I’ve not (yet) read it. And it’s a great example of the challenges police forces have faced as they’ve become more diverse. *Now moving this one from radar to wish list.*

  2. For once I have TWO good examples: Inner City Blues by Paula L. Woods, which I have read but not done a post on yet. And Dark of the Moon, by P. J. Parrish. You did a spotlight on a later book in that series.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned P.J. Parrish’s Louis Kincaid, Tracy. You’re absolutely right that he is a black officer in a white police department (at least in Dead of Winter), and that certainly plays a role in the way he interacts. I should have mentioned him, but I didn’t. Thanks for filling in that gap. And I’m looking forward to your review of Inner City Blues when you get to it.

  3. Glad to see Glenn Branson get a mention and I think Peter James deals with the fact that he is black in just the right way – I’d actually forgotten at one point until it was pointed out in passing in one book, which is just the way it should be!

    • I couldn’t agree more, Cleo. Branson’s race is part of his identity, as it is for us all. But I think you’re right that James addresses that effectively, without making a fuss about it. Branson’s personality, detective skills, and the like matter a lot more than his race, and James gets that right, if you ask me.

  4. Thanks very much for the mention Margot

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. I’ve just acquired a copy of In the Heat of the Night a couple of weeks ago. I’ve always loved the film but have never read the book, so I’m looking forward to it. I always find it intriguing that, although racism is a problem in both our countries, it’s very different in each, presumably because of our different histories – the US with the aftereffects of slavery and the UK still struggling with the hangover from empire and colonialism.

    • I’m really looking forward to your thoughts about the book, FictionFan. And I hope you’ll do a book/film comparison. Lots of rich material there, in my opinion. And I think you’re absolutely right about the way racism has played out in both of our countries. As you say, it’s a problem in both places, but it is different in each one. I think it’s all wrapped up in our histories and different development.

  6. kathyd

    There is also the brilliant, indefatigable detective, Antoinette Conway, Tana French’s protagonist in the fantastic book, “The Trespasser.” She is a woman and person of color who has to deal with higher-ups who don’t respect her, although she proves her bravery and competence.
    “In the Heat of the Night” is a terrific movie. Kudos to Sidney Poitier.
    I wonder how things went in the police force after apartheid ended in South Africa.
    This is complicated in the U.S. because of its history. There is still racism and sexism among many police forces both external and internal. A lot of work still to be done.

    • Thanks for mentioning Tana French’s work, Kathy. Antoinette Conway is a great character and a good example of what I had in mind with this post. I’m glad you filled in that blank. And I agree with you: Sidney Poitier was terrific in In the Heat of The Night. The film was, I think, very well done.

  7. Col

    I’m also reminded of James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series set in an apartheid divided South Africa. One’s black and one’s white. I’ve only read the first in the series. Loved the Ball book and film and I’ve enjoyed a couple of Prof Stoddart’s books.

    • Oh, I must read the McClure novels, Col. Heard they were good, but haven’t tried them yet. I agree with you about the Ball novel, and I’m glad you like Stoddart’s work. He’s talented, I think.

  8. Margot: Your post made me think of Matthew “Matteesie” Kitogitak from the two book series by Scott Young. Matteesie joined the RCMP when indigenous Canadians could only be “special” constables. By the late 1980’s he has risen to the rank of inspector. He is a wonderful character evocative of Arctic Canada.

    • Oh, Bill, I’m very pleased you mentioned him. He is a terrific example of exactly the sort of evolution that has happened among police forces all over the world, including in Canada. And, as you say, he is a terrific character. I only wish Young had written more than two novels about him.

  9. And yet again there is Assad, who assists Carl in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s series set in Denmark. He is unspecified ‘foreign’, probably a refugee from the Middle East, and people dismiss him and fail to consider him because of that. Something that works to the investigators’ advantage in fact, but still a sad indictment.

    • Yes, indeed, Moira, and I’m glad you mentioned him. He’s a great example of the bright – even brilliant – person who’s dismissed and made to feel second-class because of his background. As you say, it works in terms of benefits for the detectives, but it’s still sad.

  10. Really enjoyed this post.
    Novels that address the coping of differences (beint that race, gender, but even more so cultures – at least for me) are among my favourite. I think this kind you’re highlighting here is particularly interesting because it places the ‘different’ person in a position of authority, which makes the ‘problem’ even more intersting.

    Thanks so much for sharing this.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Jazzfeathers. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I agree that those differences can make for a fascinating plot point, as well as a solid layer of character development. And, yes, it’s even more interesting when a character from another group is in authority – a very neat little ‘wrinkle’ in a plot.

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