The it’s your whole life

Iain Bamforth

  • The Adversary: A True Story of Murder and Deception by Emmanuel Carrère, translated by Linda Coverdale
    Bloomsbury, 183 pp, £14.99, January 2001, ISBN 0 7475 5189 8

In the small hours of Monday, 11 January 1993, Luc Ladmiral, a GP in Voltaire-Ferney, a dormitory town for Geneva on the French side of the border, received a call to say that the house of his closest friend in the neighbouring town was in flames. When he got there, the firemen were bringing out the charred remains of the two children, Antoine (five) and Caroline (seven), and their mother Florence. Only Jean-Claude Romand, the father, still showed signs of life. He was rushed away in an ambulance, unconscious, to a burns unit across the Swiss border.

The two men had been friends for nearly twenty years, since university; both were doctors; they had married almost at the same time; their children had grown up together; Luc’s eldest child was Jean-Claude’s goddaughter. And now this. A boiler had caught fire in the night, and a family had been destroyed. In the early morning, the distraught Ladmirals prayed together that Jean-Claude would never come round from his coma.

When Luc arrived at his surgery later that morning, two policemen were waiting to speak to him. The three victims of the fire had in fact been murdered, the children shot, the mother’s skull staved in. Jean-Claude’s uncle had gone to break the awful news later to his parents in Clairvaux-les-Lacs, in the Jura, and had found the house silent. They, too, had been shot, along with their dog. The police asked Luc what he knew about Jean-Claude’s life outside his family. Did he have any enemies? Debts? Suspicious activities? They wanted to know more about his job as a researcher at the World Health Organisation.

Luc knew very little about his friend’s professional life. Jean-Claude had always been the soul of discretion. His wife proudly told her friends he was a ‘superdoctor’, working quietly away in the neon-lit lab in Geneva to make all those wonderful treatments possible. Yet there was no official record of Romand at the WHO. Nor was his name registered with the regional medical council. The Paris hospitals where he claimed to have done his internship had never heard of him. Stranger still, there was no trace of him as a graduate of the University of Lyon-Nord, where he and Luc had trained. There had to be some mistake: this was his best friend. Hadn’t they trained together?

A note, a confession of sorts, was found in Romand’s car; it referred to an ‘injustice’ connected with his children’s school. Someone had wanted to ‘punch his face in’ after a dispute at a governors’ meeting. Surely this couldn’t be a reason to massacre a family? Then a former lover, a divorcee who had once lived near Ferney, phoned the police. Romand had met her in Paris on the Saturday evening (the post-mortems showed that the family had been killed in the morning): they were supposed to be dining at Fontainebleu with Bernard Kouchner, who Romand claimed was a friend; on the way there he had attacked and tried to strangle her. All she had wanted was the return of her savings – 900,000 francs she thought she had invested through him in a Swiss account. Hers was the last in a series of nest eggs he had used to fund his middle-class lifestyle. A million francs had come from his wife’s family, and now questions were being asked about the death of Romand’s father-in-law several years before, after a fall down a staircase while alone with his son-in-law.

Three days after being rescued from his burning house, Romand came to. He was suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation and the barbiturates he had taken before setting the fire on his return from Paris. The police began a detailed investigation while the French papers had a field day. Having first read about the murder that week, on the day he finished a biography of the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, Emmanuel Carrère, writer, père de famille, and Romand’s contemporary, finally decided that the only person who could answer the questions that had begun to trouble him was Romand himself. Six months after the murders he wrote to Romand in jail:

I should like you to understand that I am not approaching you out of some unhealthy curiosity or a taste for the sensational. What you have done is not in my eyes the deed of a common criminal, nor that of a madman, but the action of someone pushed to the limit by overwhelming forces, and it is these terrible forces I would like to show at work.

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