Friday 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.
Jean-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.
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.
There 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?