Wednesday, September 5, 2012. It was a gruesome crime scene. Bad as they come, according to local officials. A family of foreign tourists vacationing in nearby Annecy had been found by the side of a country road, their bloody car and three dead bodies riddled with bullets. Though in my novel, The Paris Directive, the four visitors are murdered in the Dordogne rather than the French Alps, the basic similarities—the savagery of the crimes and the victims being foreigners--had me riveted. Perhaps most striking of all was that in both instances the glorious bucolic setting had been turned into an abattoir.
Gendarmes identified the murdered driver of the BMW as a 50-year-old engineer named Saad al-Halli, a British citizen born in Bagdad. His wife and mother-in-law slumped over in the back seat dead, and outside the car his 7-year old daughter Zainab pistol-whipped and seriously wounded. Nearby was a lone French cyclist (Sylvain Mollier, a nuclear metallurgist) who was shot dead, apparently for chancing upon the crime scene . Doubtless it was the German-made car and its British license plates that initially led authorities to believe this might have been a random act of xenophobic violence. Or perhaps, because of the remoteness of the rural setting, that it was a car jacking gone sour or some other crime of opportunity. The sort of horrific scene more commonly associated with drug-infested urban banlieues than pastoral innocence. Writing in the British Telegraph, Colin Randall made the point that the deadly fate that befell the al-Halli family, while not common in the idyllic French countryside, was by no means as rare as it once was.
Investigators upon closer inspection of the three victims inside the car and the two bodies fallen outside on the ground soon came up with other theories. The killing ground was littered with some twenty-five spent cartridges from a single semi-automatic weapon that forensic experts would identify as a Lugar PO8, a model once standard issue to the Swiss Army. And the head wounds responsible for the deaths of al-Halli, his wife, and mother-in-law were in each instance the result of two bullets fired at close range in quick succession into the forehead—“double taps” as they’re termed by Special Operations personnel like the U.S. Navy Seals who killed Osama Bin Laden. The killers were no amateurs. According to a former chief of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, this was most likely a “political assassination,” with a pre-planned target. If so, it would have been roughly similar to the killings in my novel in that the targeted hit was accompanied by ghastly collateral damage.The French prosecutor in charge of this case, Eric Maillaud, told the press that he would be following three lines of inquiry: 1) a family conflict over money, 2) sensitive aeronautical engineering work Saad al-Halli may have done for the British government and 3) al-Hilli’s links with his native Iraq. Despite their many questions about these murders, French investigators were determined to “crack this case.” And for foreigners such as the British reporter Colin Randall, the growing number of multiple killings in the French countryside suggested that even the spectacular beauty of la France profonde had its scary darker side.