Many critics likened this book to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a book that in effect invented the genre of the so-called “non-fiction novel” in the USA. However, this book was written in anything but cold blood. It was the product of years of distraught and morbid fascination on the part of the author, Emmanuel Carrère, for the case of Jean-Claude Romand, a French impostor and murderer.
[Disclaimer: The book has been translated into English by Linda Coverdale. I read the book in the Italian translation and therefore unfortunately cannot comment on the quality of the English one.]
A detailed account of the murders (i.e. when and how Romand killed his parents, his wife and their two kids) is a simple Google search away, and in fact Carrère dedicates but a few pages to the main event itself. What Carrère is fascinated by – and tries to investigate in this novel – is how and especially why Romand kept up an intricate web of lies and deception for 17 years, without any of his friends and family suspecting anything. One of the burning questions at the core of this book is indeed why – despite having countless possibilities to blurt it all out to his loved ones – Romand just kept adding lie to lie, until one day his house of cards just came crumbling down.
What Romand’s loved ones believed for almost 20 years, is that he was a licensed doctor working for WHO. The truth was that he had dropped out of medical school after one term and had been unemployed all this life. During those years, he would spend those seemingly endless days sitting in his car in some parking lot reading, or taking long and lonely walks in the woods around his hometown. Nearly 20 years filled with nothingness – a searing white nothingness that slowly but surely swallowed up Romand himself, leaving but an empty shell behind. This is what sets this story apart from other true crime stories. Romand’s deception was not in place to cover up a hidden truth, maybe something shameful or hard to accept. Behind Romand’s mask there was absolutely nothing, if not a painful lack of truth.
He was the only survivor of the fire he himself started in his family home. Arrested and questioned, he finally confesses to multiple murder and fraud. But just when you thought Romand couldn’t surprise you anymore, lo and behold, he pulls yet another rabbit out of his hat. When his fictional character of Doctor Romand is finally exposed during the trial, he takes up a new role, a new mask, the one of the repentant victim of a tragedy.
Carrère’s masterful reconstruction of Romand’s life, his psyche and possible motives is thorough and lucid. Despite setting out his work with a precise point of view (the one of the murderer himself), he also leaves plenty of room for personal interpretation and reflection. Many questions are left unanswered: has Romand committed other crimes? Did he actually attempt suicide or did he – as the prosecution maintains – made it so he could be rescued in time? Did he actually repent for his crimes, or is this yet another form of deception? And ultimately: is there a real Jean-Claude Romand after all?
As Romand himself says, only death has the final say on a man’s actions. Personally, I have my own opinion, which can be summed up by the immortal words of one Jake Peralta: