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11 february 2019

In 1993, Jean-Claude Romand killed his wife, his children, and his parents – and that is possibly one of the less creepy things about him.

Romand embezzled money from family and friends, had an affair, continually lied to cover his tracks, and made up stories about famous people he claimed to know, but didn't; that falls within the range of my imagination and (some of it) my experience. No, what's creepiest about Romand is that from a very young age, from his second year as a traditional student in medical school, he lied about his entire existence. Washed out of his medical program for obscure reasons (he keeps changing the reason why, but sheer indolence seems to fit the profile), he proceeded to tell his friends, family, and fiancée that he was still a student in good standing.

You'd think someone might be able to keep that up for a semester or two, but Romand kept it up for eighteen years, all while he was marrying, raising a family, and carrying on an upper-middle-class existence in the French suburbs of Geneva. To cover his obvious lack of patients or practice, Romand claimed to all and sundry that he was a prominent research physician at the World Health Organization. Except he would never answer his office phone, because he didn't have one; he would always call people back by means of a pager. Nor did anyone ever see his office. As Emmanuel Carrère says,

Même quand on est "très cloisonné," travailler pendant dix ans sans que jamais votre femme ni vos amis vous appellent au bureau, cela n'existe pas. (94)

[Even if you're very "compartmentalized," working for ten years without your wife or friends ever calling you at the office, that doesn't happen.]
But in Romand's case it did, and nobody seems to have thought twice about it. Romand spent his days sitting in parking lots or wandering around the woods. When he had to leave for important WHO conferences in Tokyo, he'd park at the Geneva airport, check into the Geneva airport hotel, watch TV for four or five days, and return home with presents from the Geneva airport shops.

Early on in Carrère's masterpiece of true crime L'adversaire, you wonder what the heck Romand did for money, and here the story turns banal, if still worthy of Patricia Highsmith. The doctor manqué simply drained the bank accounts of his parents and in-laws, and then set himself up as somebody who could get selected marks prime accounts at Swiss banks (right?) if they just entrusted him with hundreds of thousands of francs in cash. A friend of his (though not one who'd lost money to him) tells Carrère that

il est facile de considérer Romand comme un monstre et ses amis comme une bande de bourgeois de province ridiculement naïfs quand on connait la fin de l'histoire, mais … avant c'était different. "Ça a l'air idiot de dire ça, mais vois savez, c'etait un type profondément gentil." (189)

[it's easy to think of Romand as a monster and his friends as a bunch of ridiculously gullible, pretentious provincials – when you know how things turned out – but beforehand it wasn't like that. "This sounds moronic, but you know, he was a deeply nice guy."]
Things eventually came to a head, and instead of going to prison or the Caymans, Romand decided to kill his entire family. That's where the story moves from creepy to banal to tragic, and Carrère doesn't have any answers why. One of the best things about L'adversaire is how Carrère keeps various explanations for Romand's behavior, indeed his existence, in suspension. He lets observers have their own say, from a journalist who tells him that Romand is irresponsibly evil, and simply enabled by fanboys like Carrère himself, to Catholic prison "visitors" who insist that Romand does a great deal of good in prison, and is worthy of their prayers for his redemption. By turning his critical attentions back on himself, Carrère complicates his narrative and the motives behind it, and never lets himself off the hook.

While there's life, there's hope. But three days ago, Romand lost a bid for parole, the French legal system evidently concluding that where there's life there's danger for the public if Romand is released. He turned 65 today in prison and might live another few decades there, a great enigma in the annals of crime.

Carrère, Emmanuel. L'adversaire. Paris: P.O.L., 2000.