(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

On the morning of January 9, 1993, Jean-Claude Romand, a respected physician and researcher at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland, bludgeoned his wife to death and shot his two small children. Then he drove to his elderly parents’ home, had lunch with them, and soon afterwards shot them, too. He returned home the following night, set fire to the house, and tried to take his own life by swallowing twenty Nembutal tablets. Unfortunately for Romand, he was more proficient at murder than suicide. He survived because firefighters arrived and pulled him from the burning house.

At first the fire appeared to be a tragic accident, but then it was discovered that Romand’s parents had been murdered and the victims of the fire must have been dead before the fire began. Next, a note was discovered in Romand’s hand, admitting to the murders. It soon emerged that this was more than a case of multiple murder. Romand’s friends and neighbors were astonished to discover that Romand had been living a colossal lie for a period of eighteen years. He was not employed by the WHO, and never had been. He was not and never had been a doctor. He had never done any of the things he had claimed to have done. He did not hobnob with famous international humanitarians and government ministers, as he claimed. He did not travel to international conferences. He was not an astute financial investor who could be entrusted with his relatives’ life savings. The truth was that Jean-Claude Romand had no job at all. For years he had lived off his parents’ money, and when that no longer became possible, he resorted to swindling his in-laws, who, incredibly, did not seem to notice. When he finally began to run out of money, he realized that his long deception was about to be exposed. Unable to bear the thought of his close family discovering his secret, he killed them.

The Adversary attempts to explain how Romand managed to pull off such a huge deception, and for so long, as well as how it all began. Carrère, who tells the story with masterly skill (he attended Romand’s trial and corresponded with him in prison), finds clues in Romand’s early upbringing. The future liar and mass murderer was a quiet, well-behaved only child. His father never showed his feelings, and Romand tried to emulate him. His mother was a worrier and Romand learned to conceal his own problems for fear that confiding in her would make her worry more. The family ethic contained a paradox: The boy was taught always to tell the truth, but he also learned that there were some things that were not to be spoken of, even if they were true. The important thing was not to upset people. Secretly unhappy, the boy had no one to confide in except his dog.

His parents wanted him to become a forester, like his father, but Romand chose to attend medical school in Lyon instead. There he developed a relationship with his distant cousin Florence. In their group of friends, Romand was known as the bookworm; his lifelong friend Luc Ladmiral was the natural leader. All appeared well until the end of the second year, when he got up too late to take one of the final exams. He rescheduled it for September, but this time deliberately chose to lie in bed rather than take the exam. The reason he did this is unclear, since he was a competent student and could have passed the exam. At this time Romand took his first serious wrong turn. Instead of consulting with the university and constructing a plan to get his studies back on track, when the test results were posted, he announced to parents and friends that he had passed. Astonishingly, no one noticed that his name did not appear on the list of successful candidates.

For Romand, that was the fateful decision. From then on, one lie led easily to another. The next trimester he shut himself away in an apartment, then lied to his best friend Ladmiral that he had cancer. Then he returned to the university and reregistered as a second-year student, which he continued to do for twelve successive years, until 1985. It was not until 1986 that the university barred him from reregistering. Romand attended classes, studied, used the library; his friends assumed he was getting along fine.

Romand married Florence and they produced a son and daughter. It appears that Romand genuinely loved his family. Later he would insist that, although the social part of his life was false, the emotional part was true.

After Romand claimed to have a job at the WHO, this was his typical routine: He would drive his children to school and then drive to the WHO offices. Entering with a visitor’s pass, he would use WHO services such as the library, post office, bank, and travel office. From the...

(The entire section is 1921 words.)