Monday, July 7, 2014
Revisiting Virgil Tibbs
The lack of a wife is important in Then Came Violence. Tibbs comes home from a vacation to find all his possessions have been moved, without his knowledge, from his apartment to a suburban house. When he gets to the house, he finds he has a beautiful wife and two children he has never met before. His new family turns out to be that of the president of an African country on the run for his life. The president's wife and kids have been placed in Tibbs's care for their protection, which doesn't make a lot of sense because Tibbs works such long hours on his job he is rarely home. Nor does it make sense that the trusted officer wasn't briefed about all this ahead of time.
Tibbs is prevented from spending more time with his temporary family by a series of violent crimes, which lead to other violent crimes when a gang of vigilantes appears to be taking the role of judge, jury and executioner. Tibbs takes his job seriously, but never more so than when it becomes personal and the life of another man's wife, whom he has come to love himself, is endangered.
As in the classic film version of In the Heat of the Night, this novel proves to be as much about race as it is about crime. Tibbs is black and his partner is of Japanese descent. Good characters and bad ones are divided equally between black and white. Even though the narrator tells us mixed-race, or salt-and-pepper, gangs are rare, the story gives us not one but two such gangs. Ball may be trying too hard to write an equal opportunity novel. Still it is a terrific story that, even after more than 30 years, still seems timely, as well as exciting.