Murder Is Our Peculiar Pastime: Fifty Notable American Crime Novels: 1-2.

Ball, John.  In the Heat of the Night.  New York: Harper, 1965.

John Ball’s most memorable creation, the African-American police detective Virgil Tibbs, was the protagonist of six novels and five films, most of which were not based on Ball’s novels.  In the Heat of the Night, the first novel to feature Tibbs, was an award-winning novel that was adapted fairly faithfully into an award-winning film.  For the novel, Ball received an Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for best first mystery and a Gold Dagger award from the Crime Writers Association for best non-British mystery.  The film, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, won honored with five Academy Awards, including the award for best picture.

The publication of Ball’s novel and the release of the film roughly coincided with the height of the civil rights movement.  Virgil Tibbs is an African-American detective with the Pasadena police department (in the film, the location is changed to Philadelphia).  While he is visiting family in Mississippi, someone murders the wealthy manufacturer whose new plant was going to revitalize the town.  His widow makes it clear that the construction of the plant will depend on the apprehension of whoever killed her husband. It becomes clear that Tibbs has more experience investigating homicides that the local sheriff, a good old boy named Bill Gillespie, who asks Tibbs’ superior to “loan” him to Gillespie’s department.  Tibbs bristles at the remaining racism among the townpeople, but gradually he and Gillespie develop a mutual respect.

 

Biggers, Earl Derr.  Charlie Chan Carries On.  Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs Merrill, 1930.

In a period dominated by postcolonial attitudes, Charlie Chan seems a very dated and contrived character.  Chan is an unfailingly polite Chinese-American detective with a large family and an even larger store of Chinese folk wisdom at his command.  Unflappable even in the face of violence, Chan quietly observes what others fail to notice either because they are responding more emotionally to a situation or because they have reflexively formed prejudgments about it.  Chan’s clothes hardly ever seem to get rumpled, and even when somewhat hurried, his diction is impeccable.  Still, Chan has never managed to shake a very heavy Chinese accent—or parody of a Chinese accent.  Indeed, because he was created by a White author and played on film by a White actor, Charlie Chan has come to exemplify condescending White stereotypes of the “good Oriental.”  (A recent anthology of Chinese-American writing has been titled Charlie Chan Is Dead.)

Nonetheless, at the time that Biggers created Charlie Chan, positive representations of Chinese and Japanese, stereotyped or not, were almost nonexistent in American fiction and film.  Instead, most Chinese and Japanese characters were “sinister Orientals” in the Fu Manchu mold, representatives of the “yellow peril” that increasingly threatened Western hegemony in the world.  In a world tilting toward fascism and militarism and plunging into economic depression, Chan represented a civility and basic goodness of spirit that were becoming rarer commodities.  In Charlie Chan Carries On, the detective finds himself on a cruise ship taking a round-the-world voyage that he joins on its last leg from Honolulu to San Francisco.  One by one, the passengers, who represent a broad international cross-section, have been turning up dead, and instead of being escapistly festive, the atmosphere on board has become as ominous as the political and economic forecasts on land.

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Previous Series:

The final post in each series is followed by links to all of the previous posts in that series.

America Re-Imagined, in Retrospect: Fifty Notable American Novels about the “West”: https://academeblog.org/2015/06/02/13370/

National (In-)Security: Fifty Notable American Espionage Novels: https://academeblog.org/2014/08/30/national-in-security-fifty-notable-american-espionage-novels-49-50/

 

 

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