The Adversary

Written by Emmanuel Carrère

Review written by Gwen Moffat

Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes.

The Adversary
RRP: £8.99
Released: July 06, 2017

 A stunning start with the cool murder by Jean-Claude Romand of his wife and children at the same time that the author was with his at a parent-teacher meeting. Virtually in parenthesis Romand went on to lunch with his parents and to shoot them after the meal.

By starting with the climax and introducing himself as a participant the author presents us with the grimmest of faits accomplis and a fascinating mystery. What role does he play in the story, and what drove a solid professional family man to kill, among the others, his beloved children?

Carrère is an established writer and a superlative researcher and he set himself, at first reluctantly, to answer that question. He made contact with Romand as he awaited trial and then widened his circle of contacts like a meticulous biographer. The result is an artful construction of a true story that has all the elements of an enthralling crime novel.

From the brilliant opening a technical crescendo evolves signalled by Romand’s friend, Luc Ladmiral, wakened at 4 am by the ghastly news. From there the story reverts to the friends’ first meeting in medical school. Their friendship flourished and continued after they qualified, Ladmiral becoming a suburban GP, Romand a leading medical researcher with the World Health Organisation in Geneva.

The friends married, had children, lived close to each other on the French side of the Swiss border. They took family holidays together. Romand was popular in their affluent professional circle, amiable and talkative except where his job was concerned. People respected his silence; it was vaguely assumed that his work was confidential. For years he was considered no more than a modest achiever - until the day he came home and destroyed his family.

He set fire to his house after the murders. He was rescued by firemen and survived.  A note was found containing his confession and stating his intention to commit suicide. He was charged, tried, and convicted. The resulting revelations were shattering.

Romand’s  life was  a total fraud: a series of gross deceptions from medical school onwards.  He was a consummate liar and the forger of all the relevant certficates. He had never qualified as a doctor, had never passed an exam. There was no job at WHO, there was no job. When he left home every morning it was not to go to Geneva but to remote parking spots where he would spend the day reading or walking in the woods. When he was thought to be on vital business abroad, in places like Moscow or Tokyo, he was holed up in Geneva’s airport hotel. He bought presents for his children in the airport shop. From start to finish he played the part of a globe-trotting VIP to perfection. Why did he do it? Did these years of deceiving lead to the murders and if so, in what way?

Carrère is intrigued by the question of how Romand occupied his mind in all those lonely hours and days in hotel rooms and car parks. My question was more mundane: where did the money come from to sustain his lifestyle? But when the rest is known the answer to that last is self-evident: he convinced his parents and in-laws that with his contacts in government and the banking world he could guarantee them a return on investments of 18%. It had to be done in his name but they trusted him, even his mistress trusted him. She gave him 900,000 francs to invest and it was when she wanted it back that his world started to crumble.

Her name was Corinne and when he tried to strangle her she fought back. Appalled at her violence, Romand desisted, then Corinne herself turned wily, agreeing not to report the attack to the police on condition that he return her money, and she named a date.  But there was no money, neither for Corinne nor for the parents and in-laws. There had been no investments. Romand was to maintain that it was at this point that he made plans for his own suicide. It was a lie. In the event he killed everyone else and survived himself.

In prison Romand finds God. One prison visitor, an intelligent survivor of Buchenwald who, of all men, should perceive evil when confronted by it, maintains that the conversion is genuine, that all the lies and even the final obscenity are worth it in the light of the repentance. Carrère is dubious, suggesting that inside this dense shell of deceit there is no real man, only a void which came to be occupied by the adversary. And that is the Devil.  The atheist might argue that demons are self-constructed, and useful alibis; that Romand killed because he was about to be found out. But why did he have to kill the children?

It would be a poor book if it answered all the questions and this one is more thought-provoking than any true crime or Rendell’s best fiction. It is so simply and exquisitely written that you have to remind yourself that it’s a translation. Does that make Linda Coverdale a brilliant writer too? Whatever, it puts her at the top of her craft, and makes this fine book, in the English version, the work of a team.

Translated by Linda Coverdale

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