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.