The Al-Hilli Killings, Miss Marple, and Jason Bourne

Fantasy and Speculation

It isn’t because someone says there is a dispute between two brothers that he is necessarily the prime suspect in the murder, with bullets to the head, of an entire family.

– Eric Maillaud, French Public Prosecutor on the al-Hilli killings, Sep 7, 2012

Murder can be lots of fun – if you are a conspiracy theorist. What is troubling with these matters is that the kernel of truth is like the Princess and the pea. The latter may be hard to avoid, a troubling discomfort amidst the extensive padding. Hence the valuable currency of intrigue.

What richer ingredients for the gory scene do we need? A hitman or serial killer (dare we use the plural?), shooting members of a British Iraqi family in a quiet location near the French Alpine village of Chevaline above Lake Annecy. Two young survivors, one hiding under the corpse of her mother for eight hours. A heroic Brit who saved the life of seven-year-old Zainab al-Hilli by simply being there at the right time. A cyclist, most probably an unfortunate who stumbled onto the scene, shot five times. (The drama reaches fever pitch with the voyeuristic Daily Mail (Sep 7) obsessed by shot details, blood and clues.)

Whatever can be derived from this, the facts are brutal. Saad al-Hilli of Claygate, Surrey, along with his wife Ikbal and an elderly woman were shot twice through the car’s windows, though depending on which account you find, it may well have been three times. As the Daily Mail tends to be numerically challenged, the figures are bound to change. The two children survived, though the older girl suffered beatings and gun wounds. The children, being the only witnesses to the killings, are being hounded by psychiatrists and police alike for clues.

British fantasies of mass death revolve around country sets and lush greenery – the sort that former Prime Minister John Major poetically inscribed. Think warm ale, ladies cycling to church on a Sunday, and cricket on the village green. If it’s not the doddering, sinister Miss Marple increasing the mortality rate in communities by her very appearance, it’s Inspector Barnaby of Midsomer Common finding both morgue and desk full of bloody items. Where there is peace, quite and robins, there is death.

A cursory glance of the reports coming out of the Chevaline killings suggests that the Miss Marple narrative is forming in certain press circles. The murders may have arisen out of a family inheritance disagreement. Saad al-Hilli’s brother has been put into the picture. “It seems,” claims Public Prosecutor Eric Maillaud, “there was a dispute about money… The brother must be heard at length.” For the English sensibility, one can kill for that, and less.

These killings are, however, of another order. They seem a touch exotic. For the Daily Mail, they are not in the spirit of the amateurish code. From cricket to murder, Briton has very much been a fan of the capable amateur. These killings seem foreign and slick – this is discomfortingly professional. In the words of an unnamed source, “The fact that intense gunfire was heard for less than 30 seconds – and it was so brutally effective – strengthens the theory of experienced hit-men being responsible.” The Daily Mail, true to form, note that police are “hunting for a Peugeot 4×4 being driven by a man in a black shirt which was spotted near the scene by a young woman and an RAF veteran who stumbled across the bloodbath.”

Julian Stedman, al-Hilli’s accountant, was not averse to speculating about the professionalism of the murders. “They were shot through the head so that sounds like a professional killing, which is really very worrying. A casual killer would not do that.” When accountants turn into criminologists, something is truly afoot. Move over Agatha Christie; enter, then, into matters more familiar with adrenaline pumping Robert Ludlum.

A struggle is taking place only hours after the killings over narratives – will Miss Marple or Jason Bourne win out in how best to digest this event? Are we talking about matters of inheritance and squalid fraternal disagreement over properties, or an international playground in which JB will warm his trigger and crack a few skulls with an assassin’s decorum? It may not even be any of these – one suggestion is that the murders were racially motivated.

An international spy dimension might be involved – at least that would be the theory if you start wading through the greyish flotsam. Al-Hilli, an engineer from Iraq, was on a British special branch watch list when the Iraq War started in 2003, though this nugget is another Daily Mail special. He worked in computer-assisted design for Surrey Satellites, owned by the defense contractor EADS (Guardian, Sep 7). The logic of conspiracy is as tenable here as the design theory about the universe. Pieces fall neatly into place, provided you can find them.

The shot cyclist Sylvain Mollier from Ugine, ponder the bloggers, the bored and the mildly insane, worked for Cezus, a subsidiary of Areva. Areva so happens to be chief producer of zirconium, a metal used for nuclear fuel cladding. Areva, in turn, has links with Eurodif, which Iran obtained a 10 percent stake during the reign of the Shah. Finger pointing at Mossad is bound to follow – when one has run out of ideas, the Israeli secret service is a handy culprit.

The French police will be dismissed by the armchair populists across the channel as incompetent – don’t forget Princess Diana, intone the indignant crime watchers – and the al-Hilli murders will provide as much entertainment, if not more so, than a quiet evening with Barnaby and a bloodied cricket bat.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.