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.