The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère

Comprehending the incomprehensible…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

On January 9th, 1993, Jean-Claude Romand killed his wife, his two young children and his parents and then failed to kill himself. Emmanuel Carrère tells us that, on reading about the case as it was splashed all over the newspapers, he quickly decided to write about it. It wasn’t the facts that interested him so much, though – he wanted to understand what went on Romand’s head. By corresponding with Romand, talking to his friends and neighbours, attending his trial and using his own understanding of what drives people, Carrère sets out in this book to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Romand’s act seemed to those who knew him to be completely out of character and to come out of the blue. But the police soon discovered that he’d been living a lie for most of his adult life. What started with a relatively small deception – that he had passed an exam when in fact he hadn’t turned up for it – snowballed until he had invented an entire imaginary career for himself as a doctor working in research for the World Health Organisation in Geneva. Amazingly, he carried this false identity off for many years, convincing not only friends and neighbours but also his wife and parents. To finance his lie he needed a source of income, which he got by embezzling his elderly relatives out of their life savings. It was when, finally, discovery seemed inevitable that he decided suicide was the only way out. His explanation of why he decided that his family too must die is chillingly narcissistic but has a kind of warped logic to it. But was his suicide attempt real? The prosecutors suggested he never intended to die – in their view, his plan was to lie his way out of responsibility.

Having recently read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which he too sets out to understand the minds of murderers, I saw a lot of similarities in the approach of the two authors. Each tells the story of the lead up to the crime, taking us back into the childhood and early years of the murderers in an attempt to understand them. Each takes us through the crime itself, sparing us none of the horrific details, but avoiding gratuitous description designed purely to shock or titillate. And each shows us the aftermath, both on the murderers and on the community affected by the crime.

But there are also differences, which in fact made me prefer this one. While both authors speculate beyond the known facts from time to time, especially with regard to motive and character, Carrère always makes it clear when he’s doing this, whereas sometimes Capote presents fiction as fact. This meant that I had a much clearer picture of what was evidence-based and what was Carrère’s own interpretation. Carrère inserts himself more openly into the book, which I found a little disconcerting at first. But gradually it gave me an understanding of how he too became affected by this crime, and of how his opinion of Romand changed over time. I found the personal insight he brought to the subject perceptive and well-judged, and I appreciated his honesty about his doubts over the ethics of giving a platform to this narcissistic murderer. He at one point quotes a friend, journalist Martine Servandoni, who told him:

“He must be just thrilled that you’re writing a book on him! That’s what he’s dreamed about his whole life. So it was a good thing that he killed his parents – all his wishes have come true. People talk about him, he’s on TV, someone’s writing his biography, and he’s well on his way to becoming a saint. That’s what you call coming out on top. Brilliant performance. I say, Bravo!”

Carrère doesn’t put forward a defensive counter argument. He simply makes it clear that he is aware of the question, and leaves it for the reader to decide. And of course the reader too is part of this dubious morality – a question that is raised every time there’s a gun massacre or terrorist attack. Should we give any publicity to people who step so far beyond society’s norms? And yet the desire to understand is irresistible. Carrère’s own doubts become more marked as he tells of Romand’s life in prison where he had at the time of writing become a kind of celebrity and had “discovered” God’s grace. Carrère leaves us to question whether he has truly found redemption or just one more lie to hide behind.

Emmanuel Carrère

A fascinating and very well written account that has given me much to think about – what makes someone behave like this, and what should our reaction be? I am chilled to discover that Romand is now eligible for parole and may soon be released* – I say I believe in rehabilitation and redemption but do I really, in every case? Against my rational will, part of me thinks he should have hanged or, being French, been guillotined. Or perhaps he should have been bludgeoned to death, as he did to his wife, or tricked and then shot, as he did to his children. Or shot in the back, as he did to his father. Or perhaps someone he loves should wait till he’s old and frail and then shoot him in the chest as he looks trustingly at them, as he shot the woman who bore him, loved him and supported him all his life. As a minimum, all of me thinks he should never be set free.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

*Happily, since I drafted this, the court has rejected his parole request. For now…

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47 thoughts on “The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère

  1. “Should we give any publicity to people who step so far beyond society’s norms? And yet the desire to understand is irresistible.” So well said! This is such a fantastic and thoughtful review. I didn’t love this book, maybe it was just the general disturbing nature and uncomfortable ethical questions, I’m not sure. But so interesting to hear your thoughts on it, it makes me consider it differently.

    • Thank you! 😀 I think partly I enjoyed it so much because I’d just read In Cold Blood and was comparing the two, and this one worked better for me. But I also liked that he’d clearly thought about the moral question of whether books like this should be written at all. I think on balance they probably should, so long as they don’t set out to sensationalise the crime…

  2. As soon as I started reading this, FictionFan, I thought of the Capote book. You make some interesting comparisons here. And I know what you mean about the author inserting himself into the story. I actually think I prefer that approach, in a way. It seems more candid, if I can put it that way.

    As for whether we should allow such killers any platform? That’s a good question. My first answer is, absolutely not. And, yet, we want to know what makes people tick. I don’t really have an answer for that one….

    • I definitely preferred knowing when Carrere was giving his own opinions – this one is more traditionally true crime in style, and that worked better for me.

      Yes, I’m very hesitant about the whole idea of books on true-life killers, especially killers who are still alive. But I do find them fascinating, and that fact in itself is a bit troublesome…

  3. I found this book utterly fascinating. I found myself wondering what he was thinking when he left the house and spent his day reading papers in his car. How does sustaining that level of lie day after day seem.even remotely possible?

    • I know! I felt it would surely have been easier for him to just actually get a job, even if he had to tell some lie about changing his career or something. He seemed to be caught in his own web, but I’m afraid I couldn’t get up any sympathy for him…

  4. You may or may not know that I was very upset and moved and fascinated by this book because the Roman family lived on the same road we did in Prevessin when we were living in France. In fact, several of our neighbours knew the family and the house where it all happened, his wife had been working at the local pharmacy where I bought my medicine, the children had gone to the school we drove past every day, so it felt extremely personal. I think the Geneva environment of transient expat community, rootless, very international and difficult to check people’s backgrounds, makes this sort of large-scale deception possible.

    • I do indeed remember your post about the case, and it was that that made me request the book from NetGalley. I was thinking about what you’d said about the lasting effect on the neighbourhood while I was reading it, and that reminded me that these things don’t just go away once the media gets bored and moves on. It was an amazing deception – all that stuff about making investments for people and so on. But why wouldn’t you trust your son?? All his crimes were bad, but it was the killing of his mother that angered me most, I think… she seemed to have done everything she could to support him all his life.

        • I know – such a small lie, really, to start that whole chain of events. I think part of what angered me so much was that his parents were apparently loving and supportive – no excuses for him about it all being the result of deprivation and cruelty in childhood…

  5. Excellent review! True crime is fascinating, yet at the same time repugnant but, as you say, you just want to understand what would motivate someone to commit such horrific crimes. It would make the justice system a nonsense if he was ever released.

    • Thank you! 😀 I know – I’m always ambivalent about reading true crime, especially of crimes within living memory, but I can’t help admitting I find them fascinating despite myself. I was so glad to hear his parole was refused – I didn’t for one moment believe he was repentant for what he did.

  6. Brilliant review 🙂 I am reasonably confident that I couldn’t read this book and yet In Cold Blood was on my Classics Club list at one point. (It may still be but I’ve lost track!) That suggests to me that it’s ‘acceptable’ to read because it’s considered a classic. Now though, I have to question that. Much food for thought here, FF

    • Thank you! 😀 I’m always ambivalent about reading true crime, especially when it’s fairly recent, but I have to admit to finding it fascinating, despite my better judgement, perhaps. I justify it by feeling we have to try to understand what drives people to do things like this if we’re ever going to find a way to stop it, but I suspect I’m fooling myself…

  7. Wow… this is an excellent review and sets forth so many (controversial?) things we could discuss!! I’ve not read the Capote book, though I’ve had it on my wish list for years. Perhaps this one should join it!

    • Thanks, Kelly! 😀 Ha – yes, I was feeling pretty controversial when I wrote it! There was something so cold about these killings – they weren’t done in the heat of passion or out of despair. I don’t really believe in capital punishment, but for a while there, I felt I could make an exception! Both books are well worth reading and I thought they worked well together as a kind of comparison of different ways of dealing with true crime.

  8. I don’t think I could read this book, although I did read and love In Cold Blood, but it took me years to work up the nerve to try it. I wasn’t familiar with this case but everything about it sounds repugnant and I agree, at the very least, the man should never be set free. Great review, FF.

    • Thank you! 😀 This one got to me more than In Cold Blood, partly because I thought Carrere’s style was more honest, and partly because I couldn’t find any way to empathise with or forgive this murderer. He was so cold and selfish – there was no passion about what he did. I don’t usually want to take revenge, and I don’t believe in capital punishment – but I’m so glad he’s not been released…

  9. You’ve posed some good and interesting questions here, FF. I’d like to think people are rehabilitated in prison, but logically, that’s rarely the case. They merely become meaner and cleverer. Yes, I know that sounds hard-hearted, but I don’t think we need more cruelty and more cold killers on our streets today. Not my kind of story, but an excellent review nevertheless.

    • I agree, Debbie. I wish more people were rehabilitated and maybe it’s our prison systems that are at fault, but some people just cross a line beyond where I can find it in myself to feel forgiving. This man didn’t seem to me to be genuinely sorry for what he did, and as far as I’m concerned he should never be allowed out. I was so glad to read that his parole had been turned down.

  10. A thoughtful review FF. As always happens, when traumatic events come closer to home, we develop new perspectives and feelings about them, and that’s the case for me with the recent Christchurch attack. The PM made it a personal mission not to use the name of the killer and she also refers to him as little as possible. The local written media has picked up on this and now seldom use his name, referring to “the man who…”. This actually feels quite powerful as a reader, it helps to deny him heroic status, while, on the other side, the victims are named and their stories are told. I did read what I could about the killer’s background to try and understand the context, but I’m certainly more aware of potentially being party to supporting the wrong kind of myth-making by doing this. At the moment, this makes it less likely for me to read this kind of book.

    • I had actually drafted this weeks ago before the Christchurch attack, but when I read it over before publishing I was thinking abut that too. I think your PM is right not to use his name. Part of me wishes these things could go entirely unreported – given no publicity at all – but of course that’s unrealistic, and who would decide which crimes should be kept hidden? I always feel ambivalent about watching the endless TV coverage these events get but I’m hypnotised by them. I feel the same ambivalence about true crime books, especially when the crime is within living memory, but I do find them fascinating, despite my better judgement, perhaps. And I must say that I’m actually against capital punishment rationally, but this particular murderer got to me – he was so cold and passionless, and the people he killed all loved him. I surprised myself by my desire for revenge…

  11. Phew! Thank god he isn’t out on parole yet, although I’m sure it will only be a matter of time…

    I had never heard of this case (probably because it took place in the UK) but gosh that is chilling. I can see why people hesitate to write/read books about this kind of thing, but in the end the hope is that we can learn from these mistakes. And, perhaps give someone an alternative to murder or suicide if they are feeling trapped like this man did? Although I doubt those people would read a book like this in the first place but one can always hope..

    • At first, I did think maybe he’d done it because he felt trapped, but he was so cold about it and really seemed to enjoy the fame he got when he was caught, so I couldn’t find any way to sympathise with him. I do find these books fascinating and even if they don’t get read by the possible murderers, maybe they help people like teachers and social workers to spot early signs, though it’s hard to do anything before a person actually commits a crime. It actually took place in France, btw – I forgot to say that in my review… 😀

  12. At first, your review reminded me of the fraudster from Catch Me If You Can, but the person in this case obviously went to the worst kind of extremes so that his victims continued to believe his lies. I’m glad he didn’t get parole. I’m also glad that Australia doesn’t have the death penalty, because I think that some people deserve to die for their crimes but I don’t want to be responsible for voting for a party that supported it, or laws to bring it into being either. I don’t think I’ll read this but your review was fascinating and has left me questioning certain values.

    • Yes, despite this review I’m glad we don’t have the death penalty either. Too easy to make a mistake – there are always cases where the wrong person gets convicted. Plus, generally speaking, I’m not a believer in revenge. But this guy got to me – he was so cold and selfish. I can just about forgive, or at least try to, someone who kills his kids out of passion or despair, but not out of selfishness and self-preservation. I truly hope he dies in prison…

      • All good points. I also worry that if my country had the death penalty that would make me a murderer too and you’re right when you say sometimes the wrong person has been convicted too. The comments following your review have been fascinating.

        • Yes, I think it’s sometimes known as “judicial murder” which is much more hard-hitting than “capital punishment”. I thought that about the comments too – some books do lead to strong feelings and that leads to great discussions…

            • I’ve often wondered about what effect it must have had on the hangman – over here there was a kind of tradition that that job passed down from father to son. Which feels weird…

            • Oh, those poor men, what a harrowing job. A book by someone who works in that industry would be fascinating, although I don’t know if I would want to read it.

            • I have a feeling that I saw either a biography or an autobiography of the last hangman not too long ago… hmm… I can’t remember his name at the moment but it’ll come back to me…

  13. On my Goodreads list. I watched a true life movie recently about a Belgium woman who slaughtered her three children. Can’t remember the name but it was a pretty gruesome watch.

    • I hope you enjoy it when you get to it – though I’m not sure “enjoy” is exactly the word! These cases are always shocking – it’s hard to imagine what would drive someone to murder their own children. And in this one, I was just as upset at him murdering his old mother, who had always taken his side…

  14. This sounds chilling. Somehow we are so often drawn to these horrific cases, wanting to know why people do things like this. I think partially we want to reassure ourselves that this couldn’t happen to us or the people we love. I too want to believe in rehabilitation but I also feel that someone capable of killing those closest to them, especially their own children, is not someone who has the same moral conscience or empathy as the rest of society.

    • Yes, they do always make me feel that none of us can ever really be sure we know even the people closest to us. This guy seemed to have been genuinely loved by his family – no obvious indications of what he would do to them. I can at least try to understand someone who murders their children in a moment of extreme passion or despair, but to murder them coldly in a planned way… nope! I don’t ever think he should be freed…

      • Yes, sometimes you hear stories where you can kind of understand how circumstances ended in such tragedy, even if I can’t imagine ever taking such action. But to plan it out…those are the people that I doubt can ever be rehabilitated. Ugh, I hate that such stories exist.

        • Me too – that’s what got me so angry at this one. That, and the fact that somehow some people were seeing him as a kind of celebrity – I got the impression that that bothered Carrere too.

  15. This definitely isn’t for me, despite your excellent review, FF. I just don’t want to spend time with Romand, but I think its probably better to be like you and seek to understand the incomprehensible. I will dig In Cold Blood out of the TBR at some point though!

    • I must admit this one made me angry – he was so calmly egotistical about it all. I’m sure you’ll enjoy In Cold Blood, although I did quibble over Capote not making it clear when he was adding artistic flourishes to the true story…

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