Feature

Gérard de Villiers, 1929–2013

The spy novelist who spun tales from real sources

Gérard de Villiers was one of France’s most popular novelists, but his country’s leaders turned up their noses at his sex-packed spy tales—while secretly poring over their well-sourced details. “The French elite pretend not to read him,” said former Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. “But they all do.”

De Villiers, the son of a notorious womanizer, was raised by his mother and two sisters, said Le Monde (France). As a foreign affairs reporter during the 1950s, he built up a source network among intelligence officials and diplomats. After Ian Fleming died in 1964, an editor friend urged him to “take over.” De Villiers took three characters he knew—a French intelligence official, a German baron, and an arms dealer—and by “knitting their DNA” together created Malko Linge, aka S.A.S., an Austrian aristocrat who spied for the CIA. “No one would have taken a Frenchman seriously,” he explained. “Besides cheese and wine, nothing about us is credible abroad.”

His first book, S.A.S. in Istanbul, was a hit in 1965, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.), and de Villiers went on to write 200 S.A.S. novels, selling some 100 million copies worldwide. He called his books “fairy tales for adults,” but they were often “eerily prescient” about geopolitical events. In 1980, de Villiers wrote about the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat a year before it happened. Last year’s The Madmen of Benghazi chronicled jihadist activity in that Libyan city six months before Islamist radicals killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens there.

De Villiers “became a kind of drop box for real-world secrets” from the world’s spy agencies, said The New York Times, and he cast his novels with fictional versions of spooks he had met. His routine was arduous: He would spend two weeks in whatever country he was writing about, and then six weeks writing each book, churning out four or five a year. He dreamed of S.A.S. becoming a Hollywood icon like James Bond, and his lasting regret was that his books were so little known outside his homeland. “I bear the curse,” he once said, “of being French.”

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