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Review: 'The Adversary' -- a career of lies and murders

"The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception"
By Emmanuel Carrère, translated from the French by Linda Conerdale
Metropolitan Books, 208 pages, January

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In this story:

The roots of deceit

The inside story

'I have never been so free'

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) -- Jean-Claude Romand enjoyed a life of powerful success. He lived in the Gex region of northern France and commuted to Geneva, Switzerland, where he worked as a respected doctor and researcher at the World Health Organization (WHO).

  QUICK VOTE
graphic Have you ever met someone whose career seemed less than credible?

Yeah, I've known somebody I thought might be fabricating who they were in their work.
I guess I've wondered about a few folks, but I've always assumed I was being dumb.
No, I've never had the sensation that someone I knew might be a "false careerist" and certainly not on the horrific scale of a Jean-Claude Romand.
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He had a wife, Florence, and two small children, Antoine and Caroline. He owned a renovated farmhouse he called home, and a Range Rover. He traveled to international destinations, he doted on his son and daughter, he had a mistress on the side. And his best friend had been his buddy since college, and now they lived near each other as godparents to their respective offspring.

But Romand's tight-knit little world came unraveled in horrific fashion when, in 1993, his house burned. Inside, rescuers found an unconscious Romand and the bodies of his wife, daughter and son, who had been killed before the fire. When Romand's uncle went to the home of Romand's parents to tell them the news, he found them murdered as well.

To the shock of everyone who knew the Romands, detectives discovered that Romand had killed his family because they were on the verge of finding out the truth: His entire career, starting in medical school, was a lie. He wasn't a doctor; he hadn't even made it through medical school, let alone to the offices of WHO.

He hadn't even held a job in two decades. He paid for his family and their comfortable middle-class lifestyle by emptying the savings accounts of his parents, his wife's parents and his mistress -- all by promising them he was investing their money in a WHO account. And when the money ran out, Romand lost his grip on the alternate world he'd created.

It's a tale reminiscent of the Patricia Highsmith novel "The Talented Mr. Ripley," which investigates life through the eyes of a murderous young man with a nebulous identity. But the Romand story is real. He's a character who's so attached to a certain identity that he tells any lie to keep that identity alive. It starts with a single drop of fabrication and turns into a raging flood of fiction.

Reminiscent of the Patricia Highsmith novel "The Talented Mr. Ripley": Jean-Claude Romand's entire career, starting in medical school, was a lie. He wasn't a doctor; he hadn't even made it through medical school, let alone to the offices of WHO. He hadn't even held a job in two decades.

The story is also one of those eerie observations of humanity that begs to be turned into a TV movie, or better, a nonfiction book. That's precisely what noted French writer Emmanuel Carrère has done. "The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception" has already enjoyed a best-selling run in France, and now Metropolitan Books (an imprint of Henry Holt and Company) is unleashing it on U.S. shores.

If you open these pages, you're inviting yourself to the site of a spectacular train wreck. Carrère, who has written several screenplays and won the Prix Femina for his novel "Class Trip," delves into a life -- and false career -- that went terribly wrong.

The roots of deceit

Picture this nightmare: a single decision you make while still in college ruins your life twenty years later. For Romand, according to Carrère, that came when he skipped out on his first-year finals for medical school in Lyon. But instead of taking the exam later, or taking his first year over again, he made what seemed to be the easy choice. He denied the failure, telling everyone that he'd passed -- and he continued to claim he was in medical school.

The lengths Romand went to keep the lie alive would border on comical, if not for their tragic consequences. Each day in school, he pretended to attend class and take exams. He invented his degrees. In the peak of his self-denials, when his family thought he was consulting with fellow doctors and political officials at WHO, he'd drive around to different cafés, reading papers and books. If his wife wanted to reach him, she beeped him, never once trying to contact him at WHO headquarters. This went on for years.

In the first third of the book, Emmanuel Carrère takes pains to connect his life -- and therefore the readers' -- to the tragedy. He writes melodramatically of where he was when the murders happened, as if readers might care; he draws on the death of a friend around the time of the murders to give readers the chance to see him in a compassionate light. Carrère also makes a point to tell the reader he's a widely respected writer.

When his family wanted to see his office at WHO, he drove them to the building, stopped in the parking lot, pointed to a window and said, "That's my office," before driving off.

When friends and "colleagues" asked him about his work, he feigned modesty. That Jean-Claude, they said, is such a modest fellow. His wife used to tease that one day she would find out he was a Communist spy.

The inside story

In "The Adversary," Carrère propels his narrative by seeking an answer to why it happened. But the moral to stories like this are never simple. Still, Carrère seeks reason from the source.

After hearing of the murders, Carrère struck up an odd pen-pal relationship with Romand from his jail cell, and he uses the stories of Romand's closest friend, Luc Ladmiral, as the lead witness account. Carrère also depends heavily on documents from Romand's trial to open a window on this bizarre world.

Carrère clearly both loathes and understands his subject. Romand is mentally ill, a psychiatrist's endless puzzle, at once delving into behavior that leads to the choice of murdering those closest to him, but also able to step back from what he's done and look at it with astonishment.

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Emmanuel Carrère  

Carrère's book falters slightly over his attempt to encapsulate something that escapes rational human judgments. Carrère's human, therefore he's connected emotionally to the project, and he shows that a bit too often.

In the first third of the book, Carrère takes pains to connect his life -- and therefore the readers' -- to the tragedy. He writes melodramatically of where he was when the murders happened, as if readers might care; he draws on the death of a friend around the time of the murders to give readers the chance to see him in a compassionate light.

Carrère also makes a point to tell the reader he's a widely respected writer.

The book wouldn't have lost a step without these hurdles. Thankfully, Carrère abandons this strategy when it counts, in the recollections of exactly how Romand pretended to be a WHO expert for 18 years, fooling his wife, children, friends.

'I have never been so free'

While peeling back the layers of the story, Carrère does a commendable job of putting himself into the mind of Romand, trying to figure out why he lied when the truth would hurt much less, which truths he told that might actually be lies, and why he told them. It's a sticky web that cannot be untangled, even by Romand.

But Carrère's perspective is needed, because Romand is such an elusive character that he fools himself into believing his own lies. If he can't give us answers, someone needs to form hypotheses, and Carrère doesn't shy away from the challenge.

In the end, Romand gets life in prison with a possibility of parole in 2015. But it's Carrère's failed attempts to tie up the tragedy in a neat ending that offer the clearest statement of what has happened.

"On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting."
— Emmanuel Carrère, "The Adversary"

Those still living who were directly affected by Romand's twisted dealings will never have an answer, and their lives are forever tainted.

Romand, meantime, seems to have come to his own conclusions:

"I have never been so free; life has never been so beautiful," Romand is quoted. "I am a murderer, I am seen as the lowest possible thing in society, but that's easier to bear than the 20 years of lies that came before."

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