Showing posts with label John Ball. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Ball. Show all posts

Friday, March 19, 2021

Virgil Tibbs #01 - In the Heat of the Night

New York native John Ball (real name John Dudley Ball Jr., 1911-1988) worked as a newspaper and magazine reporter, a part-time Los Angeles deputy and a book review columnist for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. In addition to his three Talon police procedural novels, Ball also authored a seven-book series of novels starring African-American homicide detective Virgil Tibbs. The author is memorialized for the series' debut title, 1965's In the Heat of the Night. The Edgar Award-winning book was adapted to cinema in 1967, capturing five Oscars including Best Picture. After enjoying Ball's first Talon novel, 1977's Police Chief, I was anxious to read what is considered his finest work.

The book begins by introducing readers to Wells, South Carolina. It's the proverbial 1960s Southern small town where they can still smell the Civil War powder burning and probably always will. It's here where young cop Sam Wood patrols the city's streets on the graveyard shift. After a midnight lunch break, Wood discovers a dead body lying in the highway. After notifying police chief Bill Gillespie, Wood is instructed to immediately prowl the area for strangers. In a dark and cavernous train station, Wood finds a black man casually reading a paperback book. After discovering the black man has a wallet of cash, Wood hauls him in as the prime murder suspect.

Perhaps one of Hollywood's most treasured movie quotes is found in the book's fourth chapter - “They call me Mister Tibbs.” After the police question the black man, they learn that he is Virgil Tibbs, a veteran homicide detective from Pasadena, CA. As the narrative tightens, readers learn that Tibbs was trained in martial arts with a specialty in karate, judo and aikido. In addition, he's a veteran of the Pasadena police force, becoming a homicide detective after five years of patrol. It's also hinted that he may have attended an FBI school. Tibbs is a polymath, like Ball's favorite literature hero Sherlock Holmes. He is astute at problem solving with an almost supernatural attention to detail. But in the deep South of the 1960s, Tibbs finds he's in a different world.

As one can imagine, Ball explores the line between racial hostility and small-town justice. After learning that Tibbs is a highly regarded detective, Gillespie asks for his assistance with the corpse. Through character interviews, Tibbs learns more about the case despite the town's opposition that a colored man is leading the investigation. Tibbs, knowing that Gillespie and Wood are both inexperienced, is extremely humble and complacently accepts his role as a victim of racism. This is where Ball absolutely shines as a storyteller. Tibbs doesn't particularly care about the injustice, the racial hostility or Gillespie's browbeating. He's far above all of that, never in the ditch but up on the road. Tibbs is consumed by the murder mystery. Through the book's 150-pages, I don't recall Tibbs stopping for rest. Instead, he ascends to a plane of existence that only contains him, the murdered and the murderer. Thankfully, Ball doesn't make readers rest in this headspace. Instead, he presents the story by centralizing Wood and Gillespie. Readers rarely ride with Tibbs but instead are presented his findings just like Wood and Gillespie.

I'm probably off base here, but for some reason I couldn't help but think of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer character. Tibbs isn't Archer, but the narrative's twists and turns reminds me of MacDonald's writing style. Or, it could just be that I'm aligning two West-Coast detectives. Nevertheless, In the Heat of the Night is a masterpiece of police procedural fiction. If you are a fan of the film, there are key differences in the novel. The film has Tibbs from Philadelphia, the murdered man as someone quite different and the suspects having different professions and roles. Most notably is that the film version presents Tibbs as an angered individual when faced with racism. As I alluded to earlier, the novel is the opposite. Thankfully, the old adage applies here: The book is better than the movie (or television show).

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, March 8, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 81

On Episode 81 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we explain why you sometimes see the name “Book Creations, Inc.” on copyright pages. Also discussed: Lyle Kenyon Engel, James Reasoner, Stephen King, Dana Fuller Ross, Richard Neely, John Ball and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app or or download directly HERE 

You can also donate to the show HERE

Listen to "Episode 81: Lyle Kenyon Engel" on Spreaker.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Jack Tallon #01 - Police Chief

Over the course of four decades, crime-fiction author John Ball (1911-1988) wrote nearly 20 novels. His most critically acclaimed work was 1965's racially-charged In the Heat of the Night. The book introduced a California African-American detective named Virgil Tibbs, a character that Ball would utilize for six more novels through 1986. The novel was adapted to cinema in 1967 (winning an Oscar for Best Picture) and television in 1988. While Ball is mostly known for the Virgil Tibbs character, the author did create another police series as well.

In 1977, Ball's novel Police Chief was published. It introduced a highly-skilled police Sergeant named Jack Tallon who relocates from Pasadena, California to the small town of Whitewater, Washington. Motivating the move is that Tallon accepts a position as the town's Police Chief. The successful book prompted two sequels – 1981's Trouble for Tallon and 1984's Chief Tallon and the S.O.R. My introduction to the author is the first installment of the Jack Tallon trilogy, Police Chief.

The novel's opening chapter is set in South Pasadena as Tallon responds to a gun-store robbery. In just six-pages, the author introduces Tallon as a highly competent, authoritative figure who orchestrates a number of law-enforcement operatives into strategic formations and duties. When the S.W.A.T. Team arrives, Tallon accepts his role as back-up as the second chapter unfolds with a grizzly highway accident that forces Tallon to rescue students from a heavily-damaged bus. As the first on the scene, and with many of the city's police maintaining assistance with the gun-store holdup, Tallon accepts the uncomfortable position of declaring six of the students as deceased. As the night ends, Tallon's wife Jennifer sees her husband exhausted and covered in blood. This imagery leads Tallon and Jennifer to discuss a potential career change.

Over the next couple of chapters, Tallon is invited to the small Pacific-Southwest town of Whitewater, Washington. Despite being a neighbor to the much larger city of Spokane, Whitewater has very little crime. The former Police Chief has retired and Tallon is offered the role. His duties include managing four patrol cars, one detective, a Sergeant and five uniformed officers. At first, the lack of daily action and danger plagues Tallon and prompts him to rethink his one-year contract. But, in just a few weeks Whitewater is rocked by a serial rapist and a pipeline of heroin.

There's no doubt that author John Ball had a real gift of storytelling. I was really invested in the opening chapter and couldn't wait to learn how Tallon was going to assist in the store hold-up. After that entire scene is left dangling and unfinished, I was furious that Tallon had to leave the gun-action to assist with a highway collision. Most authors can't make that quick of a transition, and even fewer can maintain the reader's interest and attention after the fast scene change. But, I quickly realized that the author was plotting with a purpose. This was a calculated move that shifts all of the attention to the main character. Readers had to experience the turbulent night-life of Tallon, the daring “quick to respond” nature of the police business that puts law-enforcement in various precarious situations – sometimes within the same half-hour time-frame.

After building his character's cop credibility, Tallon trains his staff on modern tactics despite their belief that any of it is needed. When the serial rapist begins attacking the town's most beautiful women, Tallon orchestrates a sting operation that places a beautiful young nurse as bait for the rapist. Further, the staff must contend with high-speed chases and fights as a heroin operation comes to fruition on Whitewater's small-town streets and local college campus. The story is that many of the town's citizens feel that crime has increased only because the new Police Chief is involved. They suspect their new Chief is actually the rapist, placing a point of contention between Tallon and the people he has sworn to protect.

I absolutely loved this book and instantly liked the character of Jack Tallon. Once the book settles into the procedural investigation of rape and drug trafficking, I felt that Ball's storytelling was similar to that of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series. With just a handful of officers, the entire investigation was a more intimate experience told through the activities of these men. While the book isn't terribly violent, the two furious car-chase scenes were some of the best I've read. Also, the rapes themselves aren't in the narrative (thankfully), but the grizzly details are presented through the eye-witness accounts. In that regard, Ball used the expertise of Cheney, Washington's law-enforcement agencies to better understand these investigations. I think that realism propelled the story-line in a positive way.

Police Chief is still in print today and my copy was the affordable 1985 paperback version published by Canada's Paperjacks imprint. I'm already shopping for the two sequels so I can immerse myself back into Whitewater's small-town atmosphere. If you love the police procedural sub-genre of crime-fiction, I highly recommend this author and this lesser-known short series.