Remembering John Ball (by Kevin Mims)

Short story writer and essayist Kevin Mims contributes frequently to this site. In this post, he commemorates a great crime writer whose name one seldom hears these days. Thanks, Kevin, for bringing his work to our attention again! —Janet Hutchings

October 15, 2021 marks the thirty-third anniversary of the death of John Ball. Lovers of twentieth-century crime fiction are probably familiar with Ball, who created Virgil Tibbs, one of the most memorable detectives in the annals of American literature. But in a better world, many more people would be familiar with the name John Ball, because he was a truly remarkable man. He was born in Schenectady, NY, on July 8, 1911. He was raised in Milwaukie, WI, and graduated from Carroll College in Waukesha, WI. Perhaps the fact that the first three cities to play a role in his biography derived their names from Native American terms somehow inspired in Ball an interest in other cultures (Schenectady is a Mohawk word meaning “beyond the pines,” Milwaukie is from an Ojibwe word meaning “pleasant land,” and Waukesha is believed to be a corruption of an Ojibwe word meaning “foxes.” Put them all together and you get foxes in a pleasant land beyond the pines.)

After college he followed an eccentric and peripatetic career path. For a while he worked for Fortune magazine. Then he became the assistant curator of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in New York City (the current director of the Planetarium is Neil deGrasse Tyson). After that, according to his obituary in the New York Times, “He wrote liner notes for Columbia record albums, became a music critic for the Brooklyn Eagle in 1946, and left in 1951 to review records for the New York World-Telegram.” Somewhere along the way he acquired a commercial pilot’s license. During World War II he put his knowledge of airplanes to good use, serving as a navigator aboard various US Army planes. He was part of a crew whose job was to fly warplanes “over the hump” from India into China, where they would be used to fight the Japanese. The “hump” was Air Force jargon for the Himalayas, the most imposing mountain chain in the world, and the most treacherous to cross via airplane. He was in famous company. A Wikipedia page listing notable participants in the hump airlift includes such prominent figures as film producer Merian C. Cooper, who had co-directed the 1933 movie King Kong; Robert S. McNamara, who would become US Secretary of Defense in the 1960s; Ernest K. Gann, who would write many bestselling aviation-themed novels; Ted Stevens, who would become a long-serving US Senator from Alaska; Thomas Watson, who would succeed his father as the CEO of IBM; and movie star Gene Autry. Later in life, Ball served as a reserve deputy in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and as a vice president of the Mystery Writers of America (as well as the president of its Los Angeles chapter). In 1960, he was admitted into the Baker Street Irregulars, the highly exclusive society of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. For what it’s worth, he was also a semi-professional magician and an ardent nudist. Few writers have ever had a resume as interesting as Ball’s.

His first novel, published in 1965, was In The Heat of the Night, and its cultural impact was enormous. It tells the story of Virgil Tibbs, an African American homicide detective who happens to be passing through a town in the Deep South when a murdered body turns up. Because Tibbs is Black and a stranger in town, the local cops jump quickly to the conclusion that he must be the murderer. They arrest him and throw him in jail. But when Virgil’s out-of-town boss calls up the small town police chief and assures him that Virgil doesn’t commit murders but rather solves them, the southern cops, very reluctantly, release him. Eventually, and very grudgingly, they allow Virgil to help investigate the murder. By the end of the book, Virgil, the dapper Black sophisticate, and Chief Bill Gillespie, a hot-tempered racist, have formed a bit of a bond. The book won an Edgar Award from the MWA for Best First Novel. Two years later, director Norman Jewison turned it into a film starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor (for Steiger). To this day the American Film Institute lists it among the 100 best American films of all time. The film inspired two sequels, They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), and The Organization (1971). In the late 1980s, the characters were spun off into a TV series that ran for five seasons and 146 episodes.

Ball’s novel differs in many ways from the film of the same name. And his version of Virgil Tibbs also differs from the Tibbs created by Jewison, Poitier, and screenwriter Sterling Silliphant. One of the most important differences is Tibbs’s point of origin. In the film he is from Philadelphia, a northern town with a fairly large African-American population. In the novel, however, Virgil hails from Pasadena, California, an upscale suburb of Los Angeles with a relatively small minority population. This didn’t matter much back in 1967 because Philadelphia doesn’t really figure in the film and Pasadena doesn’t figure much in the original novel. But John Ball wrote six sequels to In The Heat of the Night (nine, if you count the three Virgil Tibbs stories published in EQMM in the late 1970s). And in those sequels Pasadena plays a large role.

Back in the mid-twentieth century, Pasadena was viewed as a sleepy bedroom community populated largely by wealthy widows—the stereotypical little old ladies from Pasadena, who were a cultural trope even before Jan and Dean memorialized them in a 1964 pop song. The best known fictional Pasadenan of the 1960s was probably Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist of Charles Webb’s 1963 novel The Graduate, which was the source of Mike Nichols’ much more famous 1967 film of the same name. Nichols’ film and Jewison’s film wound up competing against each other for many of the major movie awards of 1967. In the Heat of the Night and The Graduate were two of the most successful films of the era, and they were both based on novels about men from Pasadena. But Virgil Tibbs and Benjamin Braddock couldn’t have been more different. Braddock is the spoiled 21-year-old son of wealthy white parents. Tibbs is a 30-something Black man from the south who makes a modest living working for the Pasadena Police Department. Braddock is an entitled jerk who tells a girlfriend, “Ever since I’ve been out of school I’ve had this overwhelming urge to be rude all the time.” Tibbs knows that the slightest sign of rudeness is likely to get him labeled “uppity” or worse, which could get him killed in the Deep South and demoted or fired in Pasadena. Braddock, despite an elite college education, is lazy, unfocused, and not much interested in serving anyone but himself. Tibbs has a more modest education but is whip smart, a tireless public servant, and a true asset to the community. Hoffman’s portrayal of Braddock gave Americans the impression that the typical Pasadena male was a rich young white jerk. Sadly, Jewison and Silliphant, by altering Tibbs’ back story, robbed the city of Pasadena of a chance to offset Braddock’s callowness with Tibbs’ courage and community spirit.

A Caucasian, John Ball was keenly interested in people of other races, and not just African-Americans. His greatest passion, perhaps because of his wartime service, seems to have been for all things Asian. Although biographical details about Ball are hard to find online, it seems that he lived in Japan for a few years after the war, or at least visited it frequently. He was fluent in Japanese and held a black belt in the Japanese martial art of aikido. Ball frequently combined his love of Asia with his job as a crime writer. Rather improbably, Virgil Tibbs, while investigating a crime in Pasadena, would often find clues that sent him flying off to Asia for more information. Just the titles of some of the Tibbs sequels are a tipoff that the adventure will eventually lead to Asia: Five Pieces of Jade, The Eyes of Buddha, Singapore. None of the later Tibbs novels ever surpassed the brilliance of the original, but all of them are smart, entertaining, and well worth reading. My favorites of the sequels are Johnny, Get Your Gun (1969), a novel-cum-gun-control-argument partially inspired by the 1968 murders of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and The Eyes of Buddha (1976), partially inspired by the 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst. They are both thoroughly entertaining and it is impressive how quickly Ball was able to turn headline-grabbing events into fodder for his thoughtful fiction.

According to his New York Times obit, Ball wrote a total of 35 books, on all variety of subjects. Even his non-Tibbs novels often deal head-on with the subject of race. His 1975 novel, The Winds of Mitamura, tells of two young American academics who travel to a small farming community in Japan in order to conduct an anthropological study on the people there. Peter Storm, one of the academics, is white, and Marjorie Saunders, his partner on the project, is African-American. Ball, who appears to have known Japanese culture almost as well as he knew his own, provides the reader with a fascinating exploration of how race plays out across the globe. The residents of the small community are honored to have a white American professor in their midst. But they are terrified of Marjorie Saunders. They have never seen a Black person before. They are highly superstitious and fear that she might be a devil whose presence will cause this year’s rice crop to be ruined. Marjorie, because she is the well-educated daughter of an upper-class family (her father is a surgeon), hasn’t experienced the worst of American racism, the kind reserved for the poor and underprivileged. Thus, her story, like Virgil’s in In The Heat of the Night, is a tale of a fish out of water, and dangerously so at that. Though it isn’t technically a crime novel, it often reads like one. In the forest at the edge of the farming community lives a hermit, a former resident of the community who lost his mind when his wife was raped and killed by an American serviceman stationed in Japan about a decade after WWII. Because the American serviceman was Black, the unhinged forest-dweller believes all Black people to be murderous devils. This creates a nightmarish scenario when, one day, Marjorie decides to wander off into the woods by herself.

My favorite of all the John Ball novels I’ve read is, hands-down, Miss One Thousand Spring Blossoms (1968). This, too, is a fish-out-of-water tale. It is the story of Richard Seaton, a thirtysomething engineer and mid-level executive at a conservative Massachusetts manufacturing company. One day, during a business trip to Tokyo, Dick will fall in love with a beautiful geisha, and this will unleash all sorts of disasters, both comic and tragic.

If all you know about John Ball is that he wrote In The Heat of the Night, I urge you to seek out more of his work. He was a writer who was unafraid to veer out of his own lane and explore the lives of others—people whose experiences of the world were vastly different from his own. He left behind a vast body of work, but if more readers don’t seek it out, it may end up being a dead body. And you don’t want to be one of the suspects in that homicide investigation.

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1 Response to Remembering John Ball (by Kevin Mims)

  1. Thank you. I could have understood Mr. John Ball well by reading this column. And, from now on, I will be becoming much more interested in knowing about Yumeko, a girl who would live those days in Pasadena, well described and written in John Ball’s novel “Five Pieces of Jade”. I will come back to this column again soon. Tadao — PS: Could anyone tell me the name of a person who now lives in Japan and would be interested in telling me about Mr. John Ball, and, possibly Yumeko?

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