I’ve Got Trouble Wall to Wall*

As this is posted, it’s Sidney Poitier’s 94th birthday. He’s had many memorable roles in his career (right, fans of To Sir, With Love?). One of his best-known roles is Virgil Tibbs, the Black Philadelphia cop who gets drawn into investigating a murder in deep-South Sparta, Mississippi in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. The film is an adaptation of John Ball’s 1955 novel of the same name, and both book and film explore the dynamics of being an unwanted outsider working a case. That aspect of the story adds tension, and it’s realistic. So it’s not surprising to see that plot point in other crime-fictional stories.

Karin Slaughter’s Cop Town, for instance, tells the story of Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy. They are police officers in 1974 Atlanta, a time when women are not welcome on the police force except in very ancillary roles (like being a receptionist). Lawson and Murphy are very different people from different backgrounds, but both are committed to doing a good job. They get their chance to make good when they get involved in the investigation of a group of shootings of police officers. On the surface, it looks as though someone is out to kill cops, and that has the whole department on edge. But it’s not as simple as that, and as Lawson and Murphy get closer to the truth, they find that this is going to be a complicated case for them to pursue for a number of reasons. Along the way, they have to go up against a very sexist, bullying police culture, as well as a local culture of mistrust of the police. No-one wants to talk to them or help them. In the end, though, we find out what’s really behind the shootings.

Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen faces related challenges in Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, the first of his novels to feature Hirschhausen. In the story, Hirsch is transferred from Adelaide to the small rural South Australia town of Tiverton. It’s widely seen as a punishment for being a ‘whistleblower’ in an internal investigation, and Hirsch is treated as an outsider from the beginning. His new boss and his colleagues do nothing to help him, and everything they can to sabotage his work. But Hirsch has a job to do. So, when the body of fifteen-year-old Melia Donovan is found by a roadside, he gets to work on the investigation. He soon finds that few of the locals want to help him, because they don’t trust the police. His colleagues are also, of course, no help at all. Hirsch doesn’t give up, though, and in the end, he finds out the truth behind the girl’s death.

In Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird, we are introduced to Darren Matthews, a Black Texas Ranger from the eastern part of the state. He’s been working at a state-level job, but he’s been suspended for his involvement in a case concerning a friend of his. At loose ends, he hears that two bodies have washed up near the small town of Lark. One is that of Michael Wright, a Black attorney from Chicago. The other is a local white waitress named Missy Dale. The official theory is that Wright killed Dale. But since Wright died first, Matthews doesn’t see how that’s possible. He travels to Lark to investigate, and soon finds himself fighting a proverbial uphill battle. It’s hard enough being a Black man in a town with an active chapter of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas. It’s even harder since the locals keep their own secrets and do not trust the police. And the local sheriff’s team doesn’t want an outsider involved in the investigation. Matthews persists, though, and finds out the ugly truth behind the murders.

And then there’s Liam McIlvanney’s The Quaker. It’s 1969 Glasgow, and the police are faced with a very difficult case. A killer dubbed the Quaker has murdered three women, all of whom went to the same nightclub. The police are working hard on the case, but no solid leads have surfaced. The media and the public are impatient for results, and the police are stressed and drained. Into this situation comes Detective Inspector (DI) Duncan McCormack, who’s been seconded to Glasgow to help with the case. From the very beginning he’s unwelcome. The Glasgow police do not want him interfering in the case and telling them how to do their jobs. The locals aren’t exactly interested in helping the police, and McCormack’s under pressure to get results. It’s a difficult situation for him, especially since he’s not happy with the way his new colleagues do things. But he wants to catch the killer at least as much as they do. And they know that. Little by little, they start to share information, albeit with very little trust. And in the end, they find out who the Quaker is and what the motive for the murders is.

It’s hard enough to solve crimes for those who are accepted in a community. It can be much harder if one’s an outsider who doesn’t have the support of local police or of local civilians. And In the Heat of the Night showed that very effectively. Happy Birthday, Mr. Poitier.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Brian Andrew Tatler and Sean Lyndon Harris’ In the Heat of the Night.

11 thoughts on “I’ve Got Trouble Wall to Wall*

  1. Thank you! Yesterday the “In the Heat of the Night” tv show came on and when the singer got to the part that you quote, the tv closed captioning read “I’ve got troubles oh Lord”. This made me wonder if I had been hearing the lyrics wrong all these years. I didn’t consider it important enough to actually google the lyrics but I do appreciate coming to your blog and being lyrically vindicated.


    1. Thanks for your visit, Robert! Those lyrics have changed over the years, and are used a bit differently in different contexts. It’s a common thing with old blues standards. Thanks for sharing the take you heard on them. And I’m glad that you had the chance to see the TV show.


  2. Margot, I loved both the book and film of In the Heat of the Night. I must try and read something else by John Ball with Virgil Tibbs. I’m not sure if any of the other books in the series achieved the same heights.
    Disher, Slaughter, McIlvanney…. I wish there was more time!


    1. I know what you mean, Col, about time to read! I wish I had more time, too. I find it hard sometimes to keep up with authors whose work I love, let alone those I’ve yet to ‘meet.’ And I’m glad you enjoyed the Ball novel and the film so much. I think they’re classics.


  3. The Scotland Yard detective is often an unwelcome outsider to local police forces in British crime fiction, similar I suspect to the way local American forces feel about the FBI bursting in on their investigations. ECR Lorac’s Inspector MacDonald often starts out as an outsider, especially in her rural-set books, and part of their charm is seeing him gradually win over the locals. But I must say Mr Tibbs is the ultimate outsider – great book and great film! Like Col I really must try some of John Ball’s other books sometime…


    1. You make a good point, FictionFan, about the Scotland Yard detective. Even in modern crime fiction, the Met detective is often looked on with suspicion, or at least resentment, by the local police. That’s actually a separate post in itself, I suspect. And thanks for mentioning Inspector MacDonald. I like his character, and I think Lorac did a fine job of depicting local culture and settings. MacDonald does manage to win people over, too. And as for Mr. Tibbs, I agree: he’s the ultimate outsider, and Ball handled that very well (as did Jewison). Now you and Col have got me thinking I should read more of Ball’s work, too..

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Margot: An interesting post that brought to mind a pair of Australian authors with outsider indigenous sleuths. Arthur Upfield created many excellent Napoleon “”Bony” Bonaparte stories where the half-aborigine Bony is not welcomed by the locals. A generation or two later Adrian Hyland has written books featuring Emily Tempest. She has a big personality and is unwilling to let the guys do the investigating. Neither is deterred when they face discrimination.


    1. Thanks, Bill. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I’m glad that you brought up both Arthur Upfield’s sleuth and Adrian Hyland’s. Both are, as you say, outsiders, and both have to be determined when others don’t want them involved. I wish that Hyland would write more books about Emily Tempest, but it seems he has moved on to other things. I’d have liked to read more about her.


  5. To Sir, with Love is one of my all-time favorite movies. And I’ve got Cop Town on my Kindle. Excellent topic as always, Margot. I love how you focus in on different elements of storytelling.


    1. Thanks, Sue! I’m very glad you enjoyed the post. I agree that To Sir, With Love is an excellent film. And I hope you’ll enjoy Cop Town. It’s a strong novel, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

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