This is a 526-page book concerning a multiple murder ten years ago, and which still has France in thrall largely due to various 'sightings' over the years of the guilty man who escaped, Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès: he's been 'seen' in thousands of places all over the world; he was thought to be living as a monk in south-east France; discovered bones near where he is last known to have been proved to be animal rather than human; and relatively recently a man looking nothing like him was arrested at Glasgow airport.
Like Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, Bruno de Stabenrath (as the 'de' indicates) is of aristocratic origin, although the cultural interests of the two – both living in Versailles – are mainly of popular American roots: this can clearly be seen from a Youtube clip from November 2020, where Stabenrath is interviewed remotely from his home, a photo of Elvis Presley clearly seen on the mantlepeice in the background. From their schooldays through a number of decades until the disappearance of Ligonnès, the men were friends, and this book begins with their youthful pursuits of music, young women and the obsession with America which the country holds for so many French people.
Stabenrath – born in 1961 – appeared in a few films in his earlier life, but became wheelchair-bound after a car accident in 1996. He then took to writing books, of which Cavalcade (2001) – largely about his accident and adapted to film in 2005 – was the first. His friend Ligonnès – who married Agnès when he was thirty – very much lived a fantasy life in spite of becoming the father of four children. In 1990 Ligonnès achieved his ambition of touring along the whole of the legendary Route 66, which took him eighteen months, with his friend Michel Rétif (whom Stabenrath improbably calls Micha Frostif). He also spent some time in Florida, setting up company there: his foolhardy business ventures were to cost his wife dearly, in the end very dearly.
Joining Ligonnès at some time in the USA was his faithful friend Emmanuel Teneur, in the book called Rémy, who would follow Ligonnès around France, moving to various places his family moved to, such as Provence and (the final town) Nantes. Agnès was not a little jealous of Emmanuel, although he often helped Ligonnès out with financial loans: a lonely alcoholic, Emmanuel was a non-practising homosexual who even remained friends with Ligonnès when, in Emmanuel's absence, his friend broke into his home and stole 6000 euros and his family jewels.
And then there's L’Église de Philadelphie, a religious sect set up by the Comtesse Geneviève Dupont de Ligonnès, Xavier's mother: she predicted the imminent end of the world, claimed the Catholic church was infested by the devil, and sent out monthly newsletters of her divine revelations to the dozens of followers who financially supported the sect. Both Xavier and Agnès firmly believed in the 'church', although Xavier – in a tremendous blow – lost faith in 1995 when a predicted divine happening didn't happen, but although Emmanuel knew it was a con he kept a low profile and didn't reveal his thoughts.
All the time Ligonnès – who is essentially making what little money he can (and certainly from his down-at-heel appearance it's very little) as a sales representative – is getting increasingly desperate, and concocts wild get-rich-quick schemes. He's now so much in debt that he not only only robs his friend Emmanuel but also empties his sick father's bank account. And he even hooks up with a former girlfriend from his early days when his parents owned a home in L'Île-de-Bréhat (where he met Emmanuel) and cons her out of 50,000 euros: when he tells her things have gone wrong and that he needs another 25,000 she refuses.
And then he discovers his wife is frustrated in a number of ways, and reads her emails: she's sex-starved, has begun a relationship with a certain Icham, and is being conned into a weird mediation course. To top it off, he later finds that Icham is an anagram for Micha, or his friend Michel. His life is collapsing around him.
The desire to create a new life is fully understandable, and perhaps many people in Ligonnès's position would simply disappear. Which is just what he did, although why did this normally completely unviolent man proceed with great deliberation to kill his wife and four children in their home with a rifle after drugging them, and bury the bodies in the garden in bin bags, adding large quantities of quicklime to ensure that they would decompose quickly? And why should he send four-page letters to relatives saying the American drugs squad had nominated him as an agent to go to the night clubs infiltrating drug cliques? Yes, they had called upon a fifty-year-old man to do this – the state of his mind is unimaginable.
Nevertheless, his strategies paid off and it was about ten days before the police discovered the bodies: he had plenty of time to do a disappearing act, and was last seen at an ATM in Roquebrune-sur-Argens after spending the night in an F1 hotel – this was an area he knew very well as his family had spent some time in Saint-Raphaël (which for some reason Stabenrath insists on calling Sainte-Raphaël).
No one knows what became of Xavier Dupont de Ligonnès, although Stabenrath is convinced that he is still alive: he wouldn't possibly have subjected himself to such rigorous planning if he'd wanted to kill himself. I'm not too sure of this reasoning as Ligonnès was so egotistical that he'd have wanted to keep up appearances suicide or no suicide, but whatever the outcome this is an amazing read.