Brutal Murderers Yet Marvelous Company

Earlier this week, Killer Covers—a companion blog to The Rap Sheet—featured a post on Charles Beaumont’s The Intruder, part of a series celebrating cover artist Harry Bennett. While I loved the cover, I was equally interested in the story itself, about a racist outsider inciting violence in a small southern town in the early days desegregation. The book was originally published in 1959; the edition featured at Killer Covers was from 1962; and a film adaptation was released that same year.

In an exchange with the blog’s curator, J. Kingston Pierce, I mentioned a conference paper I’d presented several years back on Civil Rights Era crime novels, and he expressed an interest in reading it. I’m glad to share it here for anyone who’s interested.

“Brutal Murderers Yet Marvelous Company: Civil Rights Era Mystery Novels” was first presented in April 2008 at a meeting of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA. You’ll note that several of the references are specific to the date of my presentation.

I adapted this conference paper for an article in Mystery Scene, “Murder in Black & White: Novels of the Civil Rights Era,” which was published in the magazine’s Fall 2008 issue.

I’d love to return to this topic again someday—adding in The Intruder, for example, as well as other novels from those years. In the meantime, I hope folks enjoy the essay here.



Brutal Murderers Yet Marvelous Company:

Civil Rights Era Mystery Novels

Forty years and about one week ago, on Wednesday, April 10, 1968 — In the Heat of the Night won the Academy Award for Best Picture, despite contention that two other nominees, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, were superior movies. “I think it had a lot to do with timing,” said the movie’s director, Norman Jewison, in a recent interview. “We happened to arrive at a moment when people felt strongly about race” (qtd. in Harris 415). Buck Henry, screenwriter for The Graduate, commented in a similar interview that “a movie that has a lesson to teach about brotherhood will trump everything every single time. Brotherhood does pay” (qtd. in Harris 415). The Oscar should have been presented on Monday, April 8, but Martin Luther King had been assassinated just four days before, and the awards ceremony was postponed for King’s funeral.

Next month, here now in 2008, Hard Case Crime will republish Shepard Rifkin’s 1970 novel The Murderer Vine, which reimagines the historic killing of three civil rights workers in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer voter registration drive. After the real-life disappearance of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, the FBI offered $25,000 for information to help locate the bodies — which were soon found, only deepening national outrage. In the novel, three civil rights workers also vanish, but here the wealthy father of one victim offers New York private eye Joe Dunne the following deal: “For finding the bodies, twenty-five thousand. For proving who the killers are — proof that will stand up in court — fifty thousand. For the execution of each killer — one hundred thousand” (33). Dunne heads to Mississippi, going undercover as a Canadian college professor studying southern dialects, and by novel’s end, he’s collected a half-million dollars for executing five men with a machine gun — five men who, as a Washington Post review put it, “really need killing” (Peterson 308).

Hard Case Crime is already marketing The Murderer Vine with this tagline: “Because old times there are not forgotten” (“Hard Case”). But the question remains how much that book or the novel and then film In the Heat of the Night — or genre fiction in general — can accurately reflect and successfully remind us about the concerns and conflicts of that era. The mystery genre has long been touted for its ability to engage social issues, from Raymond Chandler seminal 1944 essay “The Simple Art of Murder” to book critic Patrick Anderson’s claim last year that crime writers are still producing brands of “social realism… that today’s literary writers rarely attempt” (268). Taking the opposing view is Geoffrey Hartman’s pronouncement, still echoing 35 years after he made it, that “the trouble with the detective novel is not that it is moral but that it’s moralistic; not that it is popular but that it is stylized; not that it lacks realism but that it picks up the latest realism and exploits it. A voracious formalism dooms it to seem unreal, however ‘real’ the world it describes” (225). Turning to mystery novels written both during the Civil Rights Era and about the Civil Rights Era, do we find exploration or exploitation? Are the conflicts in the South, the battleground of the Civil Rights movement, presented with sensitivity or only in stereotype? Is “ripped from the headlines” an asset to the pertinence and staying power of such books or just a selling point that ultimately sells readers short?

The Murderer Vine’s direct relationship to Civil Rights history has already been mentioned, but other novels also resonate with headlines of the 1950s and ’60s. In Ed Lacy’s Room to Swing (1957 and an Edgar Award winner for Best Mystery), black New York private eye Toussaint Marcus Moore is framed for the murder of a white man he’d been hired to follow — a “Southern cracker” (28) with a criminal history — and he travels to the victim’s hometown in search of clues to clear his own name. The book was published just on the heels of major desegregation battles, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and in the same year as the showdown in the Little Rock school system, and it even seems to anticipate the sit-down strikes of 1960. Both in New York and in his travels southward, Touie Moore finds himself in coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses where the color of his skin dictates the service he receives. “I don’t serve no colored here,” shrieks a “moon-faced” woman in one truck stop, and when Moore asks explicitly about the state’s civil rights law, she replies, “I go by a higher law — God. If God had meant you to be white he would have made us all the same. Now get!” (Lacy 80-81).

The debut novel from attorney Joe L. Hensley, 1960’s The Color of Hate, also centers on a black man falsely accused — in this case, Alphone Jones, an ex-con charged with the murder and rape (in that order) of a white woman. The beating he receives from his arresting officers suggest the marks of slavery — “His sides and back were red with welts against the dark skin, blotching it” (17) — but the potential for violence from angry townspeople also echoed more recent real world events, like the 1959 lynching in Poplarville, Mississippi, of Mack Charles Parker, a black man accused of a similar crime.

The translation of John Ball’s 1965 novel In the Heat of the Night from page to screen — explored in detail in Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution — provides striking proof not only of how works of art can reflect their times but also how those times can impact the creative process. In both book and movie, Virgil Tibbs, a black homicide detective from outside the South, is first suspected of murdering a white man in a small Southern town, and then solves the crime, using his keen observational skills and his superior training to outdo local police chief Bill Gillespie. Ball had first envisioned the story as early as 1933 and completed the manuscript by 1960, but for all its intended progressiveness, the novel in many ways reflects an earlier era. The Virgil Tibbs of the book suffers the indignities of racism and segregation politely and dutifully, accepting the situation with neither anger nor resentment. The famous line “They call me Mister Tibbs” appears only as casual conversation in the book, and at the novel’s end, Tibbs asks permission, a little hesitantly, to sit outside the train station, on the whites-only bench, and seems grateful when Chief Gillespie grants that permission, since “it was past midnight and the station was deserted” (Ball 185). Compare this to the film version, where Sidney Poitier’s iteration of that now legendary dialogue bristles with barely contained rage, and where Tibbs not only doesn’t submit to the local mores but even strikes a white man, the town’s richest and most powerful citizen, in what came to be known as the “slap heard round the world.”

As Harris writes

‘We shall overcome,’ the rallying cry of 1963, had given way to ‘Burn, baby, burn!’ in just two years, and since the film industry was beginning to realize how far behind current events its movies had fallen regarding race, there was every chance that a screenplay ripped from today’s headlines was going to feel embarrassingly outdated by the time it reached theaters. (141)

In the screenwriting process, then, the “accommodationist Negro of Ball’s novel was disappearing, …in part because Poitier…was no longer interested in playing the role of an appeaser” (Harris 179).

Another significant change from book to film was in the settings: in the novel, Tibbs is from Pasadena, in the film Philadelphia; the novel’s events take place in the Carolinas, the film’s in Mississippi — all the relationships shifting more sternly north and south, pitting the birthplace of American liberty against one of the bastions of American oppression.

It’s important at this point to note something about the authors under discussion here: None of them are Southern writers. John Ball was born in Schenectady, New York, and grew up in Milwaukee. Ed Lacy is a pseudonym for a native New Yorker, Leonard S. Zinberg. Joe Hensley was a County Attorney in Madison, Indiana. Shepard Rifkin was born in New York, where he still lives today. He writes westerns now. [Note: He’s very recently moved to D.C.; don’t think he writes anymore.]

Depictions of racial troubles in the South — and of the South itself — by writers outside its borders might suggest a variety of potential pitfalls: a reliance on stereotypes, a simplistic sense of right and wrong, an “us” (Northerners) versus “them” (Southerners) attitude, or even a basic inability to write convincing dialect. A couple of writers — of the earliest works here — try to hedge their bets. Lacy set Room to Swing in Southern Ohio, pointedly just north of the Kentucky border — in the narrator’s words, “South and yet not really South” (92). Likewise, the unnamed town in The Color of Hate sits “a little north of the Mason-Dixon,” with even more qualifications: “its attitude was quite a bit South, without the paternalism that Southerners seem to have…. There’s been no race trouble in the town that I’ve ever heard of” (35). But stereotypical depictions sometimes prevail. Consider the opening scene of Room to Swing:

I turned to see a cop coming at me, coming fast. Some small-town cops sport musical-comedy uniforms. This one was a stocky, middle-aged joker in high-polished black boots, gray breeches with a wide purple stripe down the sides, leather windbreaker with the largest badge I ever saw, and a kind of cowboy hat….

The cop asked me, “Stranger in town, boy?”

“Yeah.” I’d been called boy more times in the last half a dozen hours than in my whole life. (8)

And here’s a snippet of conversation from The Murderer Vine, a bus driver talking to a mechanic in the far deeper South:

“Y’ought to make the run to Okalusa just once, Gene…. We grow cotton so high thataway the moon has to go around by Tinnissee. The mosquitoes get so big in the swamps outside of town they c’n stand flat-footed and drink out of a rain barrel. An’ the frogs in them swamps along the Chickasaw, why, when they get to bellerin’ of a night, they rattle the winderpanes ten mile off.” (80)

While such quick excerpts may seem either hackneyed or humorous (or both), the authors nonetheless have higher aspirations. These writers don’t just want to use segregation, racism and racial conflicts as a backdrop for their dramas — a “Whites Only” sign here, a redneck sheriff there, a catfish as a clue to the crime — but instead they strive to explore the era’s concerns and conflicts more completely. Several books examine the media’s role in impacting both people’s views and their actions. Several touch on the disparity between legislation and its enforcement, or between attitudes and actions. And while each of the novels presents the ugly face of blatant racism (easy enough to accomplish), they also attempt more well-rounded portraits of racial attitudes and reigning politics, and they do so not just despite their genre but, strategically, within it.

The traditional detective novel centers around an investigation, of course: interviewing the family members of victims or victims themselves, eyewitnesses, character witnesses, suspects. While such a formula may seem limiting — a series of routine questionings — that framework actually allows, by its very nature, for a deeper level of inquiry, a potentially more sophisticated scrutiny of various characters’ attitudes and histories, their roles not only in the immediate story but also in a larger narrative.

In Room to Swing, for example, Touie Moore tries to find out more about that “Southern cracker” he’d been hired to follow, believing that the man’s past criminal history would explain why he’d been killed and why Moore had been framed. But instead of amassing a wide array of suspects, each with his or her own motives for murder, Moore instead learns that the man had been “forgotten more than hated” (101) in his hometown. The criminal past, a rape charge, was really an impoverished teenage girl veering toward prostitution, suddenly pregnant and desperately needing someone to blame. Moore interviews the woman’s brother, who tells a long story of social woe: “You understand, May wasn’t any silly oversexed kid out for thrills. Way she saw it she was — well — she was selling her body, but then what does a factory girl do but sell her arms and legs?” (102). As for the man she accused, now the story’s corpse, the brother himself admits the dead man had been “as trapped by circumstances” (103) as the sister. Further investigations in these lives and others unravel the effect of poverty on whites and blacks both, and — importantly — its virulent impact on relations between poor blacks and poor whites.

Shifting from poverty to politics: Both Room to Swing and The Color of Hate offer scenes in which the detectives are privy to black attitudes toward the white community — not just white supremacists, but white liberals as well. The more multi-layered of these is from the latter book, in which Sam April, the lawyer assigned to defend Alphone Jones, attends a party hosted by the town’s leading white reformers. At one point, his client’s brother surveys the crowd and offers April this assessment:

Goddamn bunch of hypocrites…. Most of them, I mean. They don’t give a damn about Allie. They’d like to see him fry or be lynched. Then they could write papers and form committees…. They want to lift us up, make us as good as them. You do that by writing articles and forming committees. But I bet there’s not three white people in this room that’d hire me or Allie to work for them, except for the kind of work that their friends wouldn’t accept. You know — cleaning or cooking or driving the car. (110)

At the same party, Nero Crabtree, a black lawyer, a friend of April’s who’s been assigned to the case by the United International Colored Movement, delivers his own, more public speech — in April’s words,

the kind of speech that the audience wanted… the easy kind of thing about all being born equal, about freedom of choice as far as school, work, play for all mankind…. It was flag-wavingly good, but once Nero’s eyes flicked across mine and… that look reminded me of what Nero really believed. Nero believed that each man was what he let himself be made into. (113-114)

A long examination of Nero’s beliefs follows, about not wanting integration but competition, about not wanting to be granted access or equality but only the chance to earn enough money to buy the white man out. April continues:

I don’t believe that Nero was really prejudiced against either white men or black. Nero was only prejudiced against ignorance and bigotry, at guys like me for standing by and letting it happen when we were in the majority and knew better, and at colored men for taking it…. I envied him and wished I was more like him. (114)

In a similar manner, though The Murderer Vine relies on types for many of the characters Joe Dunne interviews — the gentrified Southern liberal, the aristocratic Southern conservative, the dignified black businessman, the old-style conjure man, that Southern redneck sheriff — the author takes care to give equal weight to each character’s political viewpoint and personal history and the larger histories of the communities they represent, thick with contradictions and suggestions of complexity. An older white woman speaks nostalgically of how her father and a black friend of his were raised side by side before exposing the fears inculcated in her by society: They “swam together an’ stole watermelons an’ pecans together an’ went fishin’ together… But if my father had taken him into his family and raised him like a white man, he’d a murdered my father in three days” (107). A white man campaigning for civil rights discusses how the legacies of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction have influenced the way both whites and blacks distrust one another and admits he doesn’t know where it’s going to end. A black funeral director recounts ball bearings hurled through his plate glass window, the tires of his hearse slashed, and more troubles running a business “where the law, the tax structure, the newspapers and most of the rural whites and a great deal of the city ones are lined up solidly against you” (173). Detective Joe Dunne’s empathies lie with that man — after even a few days in the South, he’s grown “sick and tired of going into crossroads grocery stores where the blacks who come in take off their hats and wait to be spoken to by some tobacco-chewing slob who lets them know he’s going to finish reading the paper or serve some white first who came in after them.” But despite himself, he also finds that he likes the very men he’s been hired to kill. During undercover work, he spends time with the sheriff and his men at their “Catfish Club” and likes their banter and camaraderie:

These people were brutal murderers and yet they could be marvelous company. They could tell stories beautifully, they knew how to hunt and fish, they knew how to live. I wished I was down there for pleasure. It would easily be possible to have a great time. (138)

Admittedly, it’s not entirely subtle, it’s not sophisticated, we don’t have to dig very deep for meaning. But the intention — and the effect — is to articulate a multiplicity of views, even those that the author himself doesn’t seem to agree with, and to show multiple facets of various individuals, cutting across race and class.

The potential for empathy in that previous scene is also a common theme in these books. Again in Room to Swing, Touie Moore — who is ready to strike the white cop who calls him boy, who condemns an Ohio letter carrier’s “Uncle Tom” attitudes, who has admitted to being tired of both the white liberals who bat around the “Negro question” and the “ofays who try to forget we’re alive” (50-51) — can find himself surprised by small touches of humanity and small acts of generosity. In the scene where the moon-faced woman demands he leave her truckstop, Moore strikes back:

One of the truck jockeys snickered and I wanted to hit him so badly I thought I’d explode…. I stood up and told the old bitch, “You sure fooled me. I thought this was a ‘colored’ place. I mean, seeing you, your face and the hard hair — bet you got as much ‘colored’ blood in you as I have….”

I walked out hearing her scream, ashamed of myself for such childish stupidity….

As I turned…back toward the road, one of the truckers came out — not the one who’d snickered — said, “Wait a minute, Mac.” He walked over… and I got out fast, knowing I couldn’t control myself any longer. He was a little guy, compactly built, freckles on his pale face. He had a thermos under his arm and he held it out as he said, “Old Ma hasn’t all her buttons. You want some java, I have a thermos full you’re welcome to.” (81)

“There’s good whites,” another character says later, correcting Moore’s comment about avoiding ofays. “Trouble is,” she goes on, “the bad ones are so bad.” (91)

Characters in each of these novels are exposed to different viewpoints, shift perspectives, undergo change — almost as if the authors were encouraging their readers to follow in the same path. Even in the simplest of the books, In the Heat of the Night, Deputy Sam Wood — who first arrests Virgil Tibbs, in a blatant case of what we’d now call profiling — shifts from racist attitudes to respectful admiration. “As a matter of principle, Sam Wood did not like Negroes,” (20) begins Chapter 3. By Chapter 13, he defends Virgil’s name against another man’s racism: “Sam was instantly proud of himself for standing up for a man who had stood up for him” (161). And later in that chapter he realizes “that for the first time in his career he had a partner. And despite his color, he could rely on him” (165). Gillespie too changes. Early in the novel, he doesn’t even want Tibbs in his car because he “hated the odor he associated with black men” (48), but in the end he congratulates Tibbs on his work, offers to write a recommendation to his department back in Pasadena, and even shakes Tibbs’ hand, “the first Negro hand he had ever clasped” (172).

As a gesture toward the potential for racial understanding and accord, In the Heat of the Night seems really well-intentioned. It’s earnest, even. But the trouble is that it may well be totally unbelievable. Commenting on the film adaptation, one critic complained, “If that were all Mississippi amounted to it wouldn’t take much courage to march down there; one Poitier per town would soon bring the rascals to their senses” (qtd. in Harris 335).

As a genre, the mystery novel’s narrative arc traditionally moves from order to a specific disorder occasioned by a crime (usually a murder) and back to order: justice served, all systems normal again. To go back to one of the genre’s most articulate critics: Hartman even goes so far as to call mysteries “stories with happy endings that could be classified with comedy because they settle the unsettling” (220). The novels here are often more ambitious than one might expect in problematizing the Civil Rights Era, in painting a portrait of racism, its history, its complexity, and in embedding these themes in the pages of popular entertainment — with the belief that perhaps literature can make a difference. But in the end, solving the murder can only address part of a larger, more abstract “crime.” A return to the original order in these cases isn’t a solution at all. How happy can a happy ending really be in a world torn apart daily by racial strife, rage and violence? And yet some books do try to settle issues.

In Room to Swing, Touie Moore solves the crime, discovering how he became a pawn in a white man’s revenge game, and he becomes front-page news in New York, a hero, for his efforts — then travels back to that town in Ohio, recognizing the lures of rural life and appreciating the incremental moves toward integration in what he’d earlier labeled an Uncle Tom town.

In The Color of Hate, in a courtroom finish that would make Perry Mason proud, Sam April tidies up the loose ends, and everyone — white and black — retires to the house of Jefferson Jones, the defendant’s brother, to celebrate the victory. “It was quite a party,” April says, and though his faith in the legal system had sagged, “Suddenly, I still wanted to be a lawyer.”

Gillespie shakes hands with Tibbs and allows him to sit in the whites-only section, but only at midnight, of course, only when no one else is around.

Case closed?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most violent of the books here is also the least tidy and the least optimistic in the end. In The Murderer Vine, Joe Dunne has to spout racial slurs himself to succeed in his undercover work — purposefully humiliating black Southerners who have earned his empathy — and when he tries another tactic to throw potential suspicion off his trail, his actions result in the death of the conjure man who helped him solve the case, implicating Dunne indirectly in the kind of racial hatred he’s come to punish. Ultimately, he brings down the hand of vengeance — or at least its trigger finger — on the men who murdered the civil rights workers and the conjure man, but rather than settling the score and wrapping up the case, his action only perpetuates an ever-widening circle of violence. Just after he’s collected the money and set his sights on a new life, the South that he’s punished retaliates, the violence back in New York this time, striking now at those close to him. No one is safe. No one is clean.

What then is the success of the mystery novel here? As documents of their time, these books can often prove as illuminating to today’s audiences as any news article or film clip from the era, dramatizing events and their contexts with a sometimes-passionate intensity. At their best, these writers strive to understand and to explain the complex world around them with clarity and conviction, to mix education and entertainment in equal parts. In short, you can’t discount the genre’s potential to be useful, instructive and provocative. But individually, these books finally succeed only to the degree to which they assert or resist the sense of closure that the genre has sometimes demanded. To that end, the best of these novels recognize that whatever criminal is brought to justice, whatever violence is punished, nothing is really settled. There’s still more trouble to be addressed, and a long, long road ahead.

Works Cited

Anderson, Patrick. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. New York: Random House, 2007.

Bailey, Frankie Y. Out of the Woodpile: Black Characters in Crime and Detective Fiction. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1991.

Ball, John. In the Heat of the Night. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1965.

Chandler, Raymond. “The Simple Art of Murder.” Later Novels & Other Writings. New York: Library of America, 1995. 977-992.

Harris, Mark. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.

Hartman, Geoffrey. “Literature High and Low: The Case of the Mystery Story.” The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction & Literary Theory. Ed. Glenn W. Most and William W. Stowe. New York: Harcourt, 1983. 210-229.

Hensley, Joe L. The Color of Hate. New York: Ace, 1960.

Lacy, Ed. Room to Swing. New York: Pyramid, 1957.

Peterson, Clarence. “Paperbacks.” Rev. of The Murderer Vine by Shepard Rifkin. The Washington Post, Times Herald (1959-1973) [Washington, D.C.] 5 Dec. 1971,14-14. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. George Mason University, Fairfax, VA. 12 Apr. 2008 <>.

Reporting Civil Rights, Part One: American Journalism 1941-1963. New York: Library of America, 2003.

Reporting Civil Rights, Part Two: American Journalism 1963-1973. New York: Library of America, 2003.

Rifkin, Shepard. The Murderer Vine. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1970.

Van Dover, J.K., and John F. Jebb. Isn’t Justice Always Unfair? The Detective in Southern Literature. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1996.