Influences: To Know Kommissar Rolf Wundt, Check Out Tibbs, Burakov, and Rockford

The protagonist of Summer of Long Knives doesn’t have a historical counterpart. He’s a product of imagination inspired by three different detectives from film and television.

The first is Virgil Tibbs from In the Heat of the Night. Summer owes a particular debt to In the Heat of the Night because it showed me how a crime story can illuminate the social, economic, and racial fault lines of a community. But there was also a bit of dialog that mattered a lot to Rolf’s character:

Chief Gillespie: Just once in my life, I’m gonna own my temper. I’m telling you that you’re gonna stay here. You’re gonna stay here if I have to go inside and call your chief of police and have him remind you of what he told you to do. But I don’t think I have to do that, you see? No, because you’re so damn smart. You’re smarter than any white man. You’re just gonna stay here and show us all. You’ve got such a big head that you could never live with yourself unless you could put us all to shame. You wanna know something, Virgil? I don’t think that you could let an opportunity like that pass by.

Much as Gillespie senses Tibbs’s interest in showing up this collection of southern rubes, Rolf’s boss, Kriminaldirektor Bruening, knows Rolf can’t stand the thought of leaving a murder case to a bunch of dimwitted Nazis:

“…you’re staying.”

“Who says?”

“Leaving aside that I could stop you from leaving Germany in any number of ways — my connections are deeper and scarier than your wife’s — I have a better reason to think you’re staying. I know you. You can’t let go of this, any more than you could let go of the Vampire of Dresden, and that case damn near finished you and Klara, didn’t it?”

“She’s a very understanding woman,” Rolf said.

“I’m sure she is. But that’s not what drives you.”

“Tell me what drives me, Kriminaldirektor.”

Brüning grinned. “You’re a vain man with an order fixation, Rolf. This case gives you another chance to prove how much smarter you are than the rest of us, and to impose order where you see chaos.”

“That’s what you think?”

“That’s what I know, and that’s why I won’t have to stop your visa applications or send your picture to all the border gates, or kidnap Klara and hold her in a cell to keep you here. You’ll solve this case, because you just can’t stand to leave it with incompetents like us. Could you really sit peacefully in some Parisian cafe knowing just how badly we were fucking up the Hofstengl girl’s murder, knowing that Strassmann was wasting hundreds of man-hours sticking heads in calipers while the bodies piled up?” Helmut paused. In the distance a wolf howled. “I’ll take your silence as tacit acknowledgment that I’m right.”

The second antecedent for Kommissar Wundt is Lt. Viktor Burakov, played by Stephen Rea in the HBO film Citizen X. Burakov is based upon the real Lt. Burakov who headed the investigation that (eventually) captured Andrei Chikatilo, The Rostov Ripper, but I drew my inspiration from the film and Rea’s performance, particularly from his doggedness and from his relationship with his superior, Mikail Festiov:

Fetisov: …You have a telephone appointment, tonight at midnight, to speak with the head of the FBI’s Serial Murder Task Force, Special Agent Beckford…He calls you the one man in the world that he would least like to have after him. An intelligent, methodical, painstaking, passionate detective who would rather die than give up. Again…I concur.

I added this characteristic to Rolf, who continues his case long after he’s outstayed his welcome in Germany, even as the risks to him and his wife Klara pile up:

“I’m afraid for you.”

“Then quit, and we’ll leave. All you have to do is give this case up, which should be an easy thing to do. The Reich has already tried and executed people for this crime. You’re the only one in Germany who gives a damn who the guilty party is, so all you have to do is stop giving a damn. Can you do that?”

Rolf stammered, “I—”

“Even if saying no means that you’ll risk your life and mine, can you say that you don’t give a damn? Answer.”

Rolf choked on his answer, then said, “Why do you need to stay? Why are you necessary? We can correspond. There are telephones. It’s not as if you couldn’t advise me. It’s pointless for you to share the risks.”

“No. There’s a point. If I leave it becomes easy for you to stay. And you’ll take stupid chances thinking it only affects you.”

“I know it affects you too.”

Klara pointed at Rolf. “But you won’t feel that way. And you won’t act that way. I’ve seen this with you, Rolf! It’ll be the Vampire case all over again. You’ll drive yourself straight into the abyss secure in the knowledge that I’m safe in France. You’ll put yourself in a Dachau cell, and you won’t think of me, frantic and powerless, trying to get you out. The only way you’ll think of me, of my interest in your having a whole skin, is if I’m here. Knowing that just might keep you from doing anything too stupid. It might even make you able to finally say that you don’t give a damn.”

“I can’t say that.”

“Then I can’t leave you here.”

The last influence was Jim Rockford, one of the many roles for which James Garner will be long and well remembered. I tried to give Wundt Rockford’s humor and tongue-in-cheek cynicism in dealing with overbearing authority figures:

Rolf has a penchant for needling authority figures as well, especially Captain Weissengel of the Gestapo, who’s taken over his investigation:

By the door, Helmut sat at the head of the table. “I’m sure you’re sorry to have kept everyone waiting, Kommissar.”

“It doesn’t look like anyone waited for me, Kriminaldirektor.” Rolf took his seat next to Hans-Josef. “What extraordinary revelations have I missed?”

“Inspector  Strassmann and I have been reviewing photographs of known offenders and deviants.” Weissengel said, “And Strassmann’s techniques have yielded some startling insights.”

“What a treat. I’m always up for a good startle first thing in the morning. I shall prepare my flabber for a profound gasting.” Sipping his coffee, Rolf thought that, if there weren’t innocent people dying and about to die, this would be kind of fun, a bit like being the class clown in gymnasium. Hans-Josef’s face had broken out in full grin, before he corrected himself.

“The boy here,” Strassmann said, “has been identified by several witnesses as having a deviant interest in young girls.”

“Name for me please the teenaged boy who doesn’t have a deviant interest in young girls,” Rolf said.

Weissengel looked to Helmut for relief. Helmut shook his head at Rolf. “Will you let us continue, Kommissar? I’m sure you’ll find this compelling.”

“Oh, I’m already compelled. Let’s shoot this kid now.”

Were there other influences? Sure. But you’ll have to read the book to find out who they are. In the meantime, check out In the Heat of the Night, Citizen X, and The Rockford Files if you haven’t already. They’re well worth your time.


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