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"Fine and glossy and inexorable...stunning." —John Updike, The New Yorker, on The Mustache
"Emmanuel Carrère is a master of high-standard deviation." —Spin
Luc Ladmiral was awakened shortly after four o'clock Monday morning by a telephone call from Jacques Cottin, the pharmacist in Prévessin. The Romands' house was on fire; their friends should come try to salvage as much of the furniture as possible. When Luc arrived, the firemen were bringing out the bodies. All his life he will remember the sealed gray plastic bags into which they had put the children: too horrible to look at. Florence had simply been covered with a coat. Her face, blackened by the smoke, was unmarked. Smoothing her hair in a desolate gesture of farewell, Luc's fingers encountered something strange. He felt around, carefully tilting the young woman's head to one side, then called over a fireman to show him, at the base of the skull, an open wound. It must have been from a beam that fell on her, the fireman said; part of the attic had collapsed. Luc then clambered into the red truck where the rescuers had placed Jean-Claude, the only one of the family who was still alive. His pulse was weak. He was in pajamas, unconscious, burned yet already as cold as a corpse.
An ambulance arrived and took him away to the closest major hospital, across the border in Geneva. It was dark, chilly, and the jets of water from the fire hoses had drenched everyone. Since there was nothing more to be done at the scene, Luc went into the Cottins' house to dry off. In the yellow light of the kitchen, they listened to the sputtering of the coffee pot, not daring to look at one another. Their hands shook when they raised their cups, and as they stirred their coffee, the spoons made a dreadful racket. Then Luc went home to tell Cécile and the children what had happened. Sophie, their eldest, was Jean-Claude's goddaughter. A few days earlier, as she often did, she had slept over at the Romand's house, and she might very well have slept there again that night and wound up, like her playmates, in a gray plastic bag.
They had been friends ever since medical school in Lyon. They'd gotten married almost at the same time; their children had grown up together. Each knew everything about the other's life -- the public image, but also the secrets, the secrets of honest, reliable men who were all the more vulnerable to temptation. When Jean-Claude had confided in him about an affair, talked about chucking everything, Luc had made him listen to reason: "And you'll do the same for me, when it's my turn to be an ass." A friendship like that is one of the precious things in life, almost as precious as a successful marriage, and Luc had always been certain one day, when they were sixty or seventy years old, they would look back together as from a mountaintop, after all that time, on the road they had traveled: the places where they'd stumbled, almost gotten lost; the ways they'd helped each other, and how, in the end, they'd come through everything. A friend, a true friend, is also a witness, someone whose attention affords you a clearer look at your own life, and for twenty years each of them had unfailingly, without any fuss, played this role for the other. Their lives were very similar, even if they hadn't succeeded in the same way. Jean-Claude had become a leading figure in the world of research, hobnobbing with government ministers, always off at international conferences, while Luc was a general practitioner in Ferney-Voltaire. But Luc wasn't jealous. The only thing that had come between them was an absurd disagreement, during the last few months, regarding their children's school. For some unfathomable reason, Jean-Claude had really gotten on his high horse, so Luc had had to take the first step, saying that they weren't going to quarrel over such a silly thing. The whole business had upset Luc; he and Cécile had talked it over several evenings in a row. How trivial it seemed now! How fragile life is! Only yesterday, there was a close, happy family, people who loved one another, and today -- a boiler accident, charred bodies being taken to the morgue.... His wife and children were everything to Jean-Claude. What would his life be like if he survived?
Luc phoned the emergency room in Geneva: the patient has been placed in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber; the prognosis was guarded.
Luc prayed with Cécile and the children that he would never regain consciousness.
When Luc went to open his office, two policemen were waiting for him. Their questions seemed odd. They wanted to know if the Romands had any known enemies, if they'd been involved in any suspicious activities.... Seeing Luc's astonishment, the police told him the truth. An initial examination of the bodies revealed that the victims had died before the fire, Florence from head injuries inflicted by a blunt instrument, Antoine and Caroline from bullet wounds.
That wasn't all. In Clairvaux-les-Lacs, in the Jura Mountains, Jean-Claude's uncle had been delegated to break the tragic news to the injured man's parents, a frail elderly couple. Accompanied by their doctor, he had gone to see them and found the house locked, the dog mysteriously silent. Worried, the uncle had broken open the door to discover that his brother, his sister-in-law, and the dog lying in their own blood. Like Antoine and Caroline, they had been shot to death.
Murdered. The Romands had been murdered. The word echoed through Luc's brain, stunning him. "Was it a robbery?" he asked, as if that word might reduce the horror of the other one to something rational. The police didn't know yet, but two crimes striking members of the same family fifty miles apart were more likely to be an act of revenge or a settling of accounts. The officers asked again about possible enemies, and Luc, at a loss, shook his head. Enemies? The Romands? Everyone loved them. If they had been killed, it had to have been by people who didn't know them.
The police needed to find out exactly what Jean-Claude did for a living. A doctor, the neighbors said, but he didn't have an office. Luc explained that he was a researcher at the World Health Organization, in Geneva. One of the officers telephoned, asking to speak to someone who worked with Dr. Romand, perhaps his secretary or one of his colleagues. The receptionist did not know any Dr. Romand. When the caller insisted, she connected him to the personnel director, who consulted his files and confirmed that there was no Dr. Romand at WHO.
Then Luc understood and felt hugely relieved. Everything that had happened since four that morning -- Cottin's phone call, the fire, Florence's wound, the gray bags, Jean-Claude lying severely burned in the hyperbaric chamber, and now this business about crimes -- all of it had happened with perfect verisimilitude, an impression of reality that left no room for suspicion, but now, thank God, the scenario was going awry, revealing itself for what it was: a bad dream. He was going to wake up in his bed. He wondered if he would remember everything and if he would dare tell Jean-Claude about it. "I dreamed that your house was on fire, that your wife, your children, your parents were murdered, and that you -- you were in a coma and no one at WHO knew anything about you." Could one say that to a friend, even to one's best friend? The idea occurred to Luc (it would haunt him later on) that in this dream, Jean-Claude served as a double, bringing out into the open Luc's own fears -- of losing his loved ones but also of losing himself, of discovering that behind his social facade he was nothing....
Excerpted by permission of Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2000 by P.O.L. éditeur. Translation copyright © 2000 by Metropolitan Books.
Discussion Questions: 1. "On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993," this terrifying book begins, "while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting." What does this opening reveal about the relationship between the author and subject of The Adversary? Describe the nature of this relationship. How does it change or evolve?
2. Reread the "farewell letter" that Romand left in his car. To whom does he apologize? What are the "ordinary accident" and "injustice" that he mentions here? Also, how would you characterize the tone -- or attitude, or voice -- of this note? Is Romand's tone an accurate reflection of his state of mind? Explain.
3. When beginning to work on this book, author Emmanuel Carrère sent a letter to Romand that reads, in part: "'What you have done is not in my eyes the deed of a common criminal, or that of a madman, either, but the action of someone pushed to the limit by overwhelming forces.'" Do you agree with Carrère's assessment of Romand? Why or why not? How, if at all, did this assessment affect your reading of The Adversary?
4. Identify as many of the lies in Romand's personal history as you can recall. Next, discuss the implications of these lies. Romand spent eighteen years of his life deceiving everyone he knew privately and professionally, but he was also deceiving himself. How did this prolonged self-deception damage Romand--especially psychologically, socially, and emotionally?
5. Was Romand's killing of his parents, wife, and children an implicit part of his deep-rooted deception, or were these terrible crimes the product or end-result of his lying? That is, given his ongoing pattern of falsehood and cheating, was Romand's act of mass murder an inevitability, or was it a consequence? Try to address these questions not just from your own perspective as a reader, but from those of Carrère and Romand himself.
6. At one point during the trial, the judge says to Romand: "'It is felt that you are not really answering the question.'" Explain the full context of this remark. What exactly is the judge asking of Romand? Overall, how did Romand's remarks and actions in court strike you (as a reader)? Evasive, sincere, egotistical, remorseful, and/or otherwise?
7. Examine the two secondary characters of Marie-France and Bernard. Who are these people, what drives or motivates them, how do they come into Romand's life, and what sort of relationship do they have with him? Explain the complex feelings and impressions that Carrère has regarding these individuals.
8. Comment on the religious transformation that Romand experiences once he has been sentenced to life in prison. How does this transformation relate to the book's primary theme of ongoing deception? And why does Carrère claim, at the end of his narrative, that telling the story of Romand "could only be either a crime or a prayer?"
9. The subtitle of The Adversary reads A True Story of Monstrous Deception. How did the truth of this account -- the fact that these events really happened--influence your response to the story of Jean-Claude Romand? When asked by one reporter why he was drawn to this story, Carrère replied: "It's not the murder; it's not even the lies. It's the fact that under them there was nothing. That was the most disturbing thing for me: All the facts are known." Do you agree with the author's view of Romand and his story? Explain why or why not.
10. Conclude your discussion of this book by focusing on its literary qualities. What are the merits and limits of the "true crime" form of storytelling? Are such strengths and shortcomings apparent in The Adversary? Where? Finally, compare The Adversary to other outstanding true crime works you have encountered in the past, such as the books In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter, the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and so on.
About the Author:
Emmanuel Carrère is one of France's most critically acclaimed contemporary writers. He has published screenplays, a biography of the masterful science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and the novels The Mustache, Gothic Romance, and Class Trip, the last of which won the prestigious Prix Femina. A major bestseller -- and a forthcoming motion picture--in France, The Adversary is being published in eighteen countries. Carrère lives in Paris.
Posted May 2, 2009
Recently, in the space of 2 days, there were two cases here in Maryland in which a man killed his wife and children and then himself. In each case, there were financial difficulties. In the latter of the two cases, the FBI is investigating an apparent Ponzi scheme that was about to be exposed.
Hence, it was with great interest that I reread the story of Mr. Romand whose entire life had been a lie and who was on the verge of having his own mini-Ponzi scheme come to light when he murdered his wife, his kids, and his parents (and who may have killed his father-in-law earlier, and who was on the verge of killing his mistress). It is not clear whether Mr. Romand intended to kill himself also or whether he cleverly timed setting his house on fire so that smoke would be seen and he would be rescued. But in any case, Emmanuel Carrere very cleverly combines correspondence with the murderer with what came out during instruction (a process in France equivalent to a grand jury investigation in our system, but far more thorough and conducted by a judge who specializes in such investigations) and then in the ensuing jury trial. It gives a good picture, as good as one can expect to get, of a person who would commit a crime that is almost incomprehensible to most of us.
So as I try to understand what has been in the headlines recently here in Maryland, I find this book very helpful. I recommend it highly.
Posted July 27, 2004
This book captured my interest in the beginning but really faltered after that. I guess I was expecting a story more substantial than it actually turned out to be. The writing is excellent though so just for that I would recommend it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 16, 2002
Of all the many true crime books I have read, this is the best. You won't find a lot of sex or gore. But it is psycologically facinating, and the author's comments on the deception are perceptive and ringing. I wish more true crime books like this one existed. I enjoy mystery, deception and psycological dimentions in true crime---but I seem to be in the minority!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 4, 2002
If this were fiction, you'd say the plot was too unbelievable. It's true, I read it in one sitting but I was left feeling unsatisfied in some ways. For one thing, I found it hard to believe he could bamboozle his wife for 18 years - the most totally un-nosy person on the planet, apparently. That no one could detect this total void of a person coming at them for two decades is, I guess, a testament to the true shallowness of his alleged long and deep friendships. The book suggests that he was so clever & deceitful; yet I get the feeling he just really had no deep, meaningful relationships which would have uncovered him forthwith. It may be the oddest true story I've ever read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 15, 2001
This book clearly deserves more than five stars for its unvarnished look at the self-serving avoidance of psychological risk that led innocents to be fleeced and slaughtered. Truth is stranger than fiction. The actual accounts here would be rejected by any fiction editor as being unbelievable. The extraordinary ability of M. Carrere to point out the wrongs in all of their many dimensions makes this journey into madness worth taking for the reader. This is a story of such horror and depravity that many will be shaken to their roots by it. If such stories upset you or make it difficult to sleep, perhaps you should read this on happy days and in the morning. On January 9, 1993, Jean-Claude Romand, well-regarded medical researcher with the World Health Organization, killed his wife and three children. Then he had lunch with his parents and killed them. Later, he picked up his mistress and tried to kill her. The next day, he took an overdose of outdated barbituates and set his house on fire. Romand was rescued from the flames while he was unconscious, and made to stand trial. Journalist Emmanuel Carrere was moved to sort out what led to these horrors and what ensued since then. Actually, Romand was not a doctor. He did not even have a job. He spent his life pretending that things were normal and he was a model citizen, while nothing about him was as it seemed. He maintained his deception by behaving as though he was like everyone else, and persuading people to have him manage their money in a Swiss bank account. Meanwhile, he spent the money on himself, his family, and his mistress. Even the people who had gone to medical school with him and remained his friends and neighbors never realized what was going on. The deception started when he could not bring himself to take his final examination for the second year of medical school. When time came for the make-up test, he skipped that too. No one of his classmates noticed that his name was not among those who had passed, and for the next several years he was able to reenroll in medical school as a second year student and pretend to study. The elaborate fiction built from that slim base. To realize how unusual this was, his later wife was also a medical student at the same time and failed the exam that Romand skipped. As a result, she dropped out of medical school and became a pharmicist. That route would have been available to Romand as well. But he did not take it. They struck up a correspondence based on Romand's liking of the author's book, and Romand helped him to recreate the events. M. Carrere felt that Romand 'was counting on me more than the psychiatrists to explain his own story to him . . . .' 'This responsibility frightened me.' In a time when studies have demonstrated that 80 percent of all people lie on their resumes, what is fascinating is how gullible everyone was. His wife didn't think that it was strange that she could not call him at the office. People took it at face value that he could earn them 18 percent interest in a Swiss bank (which normally pays much lower interest rates). As P.T. Barnum used to say, 'There's a sucker born every minute.'Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 10, 2001