There Goes the Neighbourhood…

fete_des_voisinsFriday 29th May was the Fête des Voisins here in France – an initiative designed to help everyone get to know their neighbours better. In our little close we already know each other quite well (the children play together in and out of our gardens all the time), so we decided to avoid the large-scale affair organised by the Mairie and take out tables, chairs and the BBQs just in front of our houses. We had a lovely time eating, drinking and chatting. And for my family of relative newcomers to the area, we also discovered a little more about local history.

For this crime fiction fan here, I was fascinated (and slightly queasy) to discover that one of the most notorious murderers in France had lived (and killed) in our neighbourhood.

OMSJean-Claude Romand is an impostor and murderer, born in 1954 in the Jura mountains. Having failed to pass his second year exams at medical school in Lyon, he began to lie to everybody around him (including his parents and his wife). He never qualified as a doctor but pretended to be a specialist at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, participated in the local (admittedly, transient) community in this area and spent his days studying medical journals and travel guides to maintain his deception. He lived a luxurious lifestyle as befits somebody working for an international organisation by convincing friends and relatives to entrust their savings for him to ‘invest’ in Switzerland.

Romand and his family, video-streaming.orange.fr
Romand and his family, video-streaming.orange.fr

He kept up this double life for nearly 20 years but, when he was in danger of being exposed in 1993, he killed his wife, their two young children, his parents and their dog, and also tried to kill his mistress (who was asking for her ‘investments’ back). She managed to escape. He set fire to his house – which is on the corner just at the end of our road – to make it look like a suicide attempt, but was arrested and finally sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996. However, he has been so well-behaved in prison, impressing his fellow prisoners, guards and parole board with his sober, mature ‘doctoral’ manner, that he will be released some time this year.

French author Emmanuel Carrere corresponded with Romand in prison and wrote a book based on the case, L’Adversaire (The Adversary). There has also been a film adaptation of it, with actor Daniel Auteuil playing the main character.  It’s a story that continues to fascinate with its sheer audacity: one other French film and a Spanish film were also loosely based on his life, while some UK and US TV crime series have also used his story in a couple of episodes.

What was interesting, however, was seeing how the local neighbourhood is still traumatised by the event, after more than 20 years. His former friends and neighbours still cannot believe that they never suspected a thing. His wife was working at the local pharmacy and was well liked, the children went to the Catholic school nearby. Romand himself participated in meetings of medical associations (except when there was any WHO involvement). A friend once tried to contact him at the WHO but was told there was no such name on their phone list: he put it down to the fact that he was a specialist, possibly working on a short-term or freelance contract.

What people cannot understand is why he put in so much work and effort to maintain a deception, when he could have just as easily worked for real. Yet in an area where so many people stay on short-term contracts and then move on, where luxury can seem to be the norm, where you are on the border between two countries and their respective legislations and taxation systems, it was so easy to succumb to the temptation of a life of ease and to slip through the cracks.

RomandhouseThere was some talk initially of pulling down the cursed house where those events took place, but it has been rebuilt and there is a family living there who are the descendents of the original landlord. (Romand was renting the property and was not always able or willing to pay the rent. The landlord himself died in a suspicious fire in the caravan where he was living, but it has never been proven that Romand was involved.)

Of course there are conspiracy theories that say it’s too unbelievable for Romand to have duped so many people for so long, and that he did in fact work for the WHO and know many high-level politicians, as he claimed. He knew too much, so he had to be silenced. Although, in that case, surely it would have been easier to just kill him instead of everybody around him?

So, yes, get to know your neighbours, but can we ever really see beyond the carefully painted façade?

 

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30 thoughts on “There Goes the Neighbourhood…”

  1. OMG! Can understand both your fascination & your queasiness… extremely alarming he may be released! I take it the family who live in the rebuilt house know as they’re descendants? Brrr… makes me shudder.

    1. I doubt he’ll be coming back into this neighbourhood though, where people still remember (and revile) him. And themselves for being taken in by him, I suppose… It’s a complicated process. Apparently, when they showed the film at the local cinema, people left the screening in complete silence.

  2. Yes, can imagine… Cinema can be so evocative anyway when you can relate to the story but the impact is so much greater when it’s based on true events… especially if you’ve lived through that, or similar, experience.
    As you said, fascinating!

  3. What a story – I was all set for a cosy post on the delights of neighbourhood get togethers. Very hard for those who knew and trusted him: they must have felt both horrified and betrayed not too mention grief-stricken by what he did to his family.

    1. It was such a contrast to the cosy, pleasant atmosphere we were experiencing that evening – and it made me really wonder about how we put on masks and prop up crumbling facades… maybe because my current WIP also touches a little on this world.

  4. Thanks a lot ! The book by Carrère is really excellent, one of the most frightening reads you are ever going to find. There is another film (loosely) based on the Romand Affair, it is called L’emploi du temps, by Laurent Cantet. And it is very haunting too.

    1. That’s one of those I vaguely mention (not by name) below. I haven’t seen any of the film adaptations, although I’ve seen the TV series episodes that were very loosely based on this.

      1. In that particuliar one you will see the ever excellent Aurélien Recoing in a disturbing performance : not such thing as a “life of ease” there, for sure. The film is not an adaptation of Carrère’s book, but like Carrère Cantet is very perceptive about the sense of void and nothingness in this terrifying story.

  5. Eek…. I kind of think I’d be moving away. I’ve never quite recovered from the fact somebody hung themselves from the scaffolding of some new houses just round the corner from us… (at night, fortunately)

    1. There is a ‘funny’ PS to the story. The woman who currently lives in the house got a priest in to perform an exorcism, but the priest said there was no hidden evil left in the house, it had all been exposed and therefore lifted. He then went on to say: ‘However, that place two houses further down now…’ (he wasn’t pointing in our direction, honestly!).

  6. Oh, what a story, Marina Sofia!! My goodness! I’m not surprised at all that your neighbours are still coping with all of this even years later. I think I would be, too. Yes, you never know what may be hidden under someone’s ‘outer shell.’

  7. Of course I am familiar with the story, and I read Carrère’s book (I love Carrère), but I didn’t quite make the connection with your place. Well, at least it was a fête des voisins where you didn’t need to chat about the weather and hear the nasty remarks about those neighbors (who are not attending) who leave their trash out… 😉

  8. Creepy story! You hear about this kind of thing often. Violence/murder breaks out in a neighborhood and no one suspects a thing. They always say, he/she seemed nice and their family was great. That is what is so scary about this world. You just don’t know and I don’t believe that one can truly know someone else completely. The fact that he kept up such a deception for so many years is something else. The motivation behind it… Fascinating and disturbing.

    1. It’s one of those standard responses, isn’t it: ‘he or she seemed like such a nice person, we can’t believe they would do such a thing’? And yet it’s so easy to maintain the pretense when no one cares very deeply about their neighbours and their goings-on anymore (as long as they don’t disturb the peace).

  9. Ooh, frightening! It’s so true that we never know our neighbours beyond the facade they present to us, but this is a bit more than the usual little secrets we all keep! I think I remember hearing a bit about the case at the time but, foreign country and all, didn’t pay much attention. You don’t really think about the longterm impact on a neighbourhood of something like this, until you hear it from someone who was there…

    1. You are so right: that to me was the most interesting aspect of it all, that the community still remembered and was anxious about it (and about his release). One neighbour, who must have been in her very early teens when it happened, says she still finds it difficult to look at the house when she walks past with her pushchair.

  10. Oops. That must feel a bit queasy, periodically.

    Carrere is a fascinating writer – I was both repelled and absorbed by his study of Limonov, in the book of the same name

    1. I want to read his book on Limonov. After L’Adversaire, it appears he turned more and more to writing non-fiction for some reason.
      Queasy… but is it ghoulish to admit that the crime fiction writer within me is a wee bit interested?

      1. No, I think we all have that combination of queasy and ghoulish! Oh I didn’t realise Carrere had also written fiction. His book on Limonov was wonderfully uncomfortable! You understand I mean that in a very complimentary way – challenging the reader with themselves and their own assumptions, because he was so willing to be upfront about his own challenges and assumptions

  11. I read the book (first) and then saw the movie. I found both very powerful. Auteuil is very convincing in the cinematographic rendering of this gruesome story.

    1. I haven’t read the book nor seen the film, so will have to do so. I can imagine Auteuil must be very good – he has that combination of a trustworthy and yet very closed face.

  12. What a creepy talk for such a lovely evening. I’d feel queasy too.
    I don’t remember anything about the book or the film but I see they were released in my no-woman’s-life period. A time where bottles and Pampers were my best friends.

    We usually celebrate la fête des voisins by installing tables outside, sharing a picnic and letting the children lose in the neighbourhood. They love it and it’s a great opportunity to catch up with neighbours we only see in passing.

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