In his native France, the 200 SAS spy novels written by Gérard de Villiers were a staple of popular culture and sold in their millions. Known as “romans de gare”, these formulaic page-turners all featured Malko Linge, an Austrian prince freelancing for the CIA and using his espionage income to restore and run his ancestral home. The hero was known as SAS after an acronym based on his codename in French: Son Altesse Sérénissime [His Most Serene Highness]. SAS also alluded to the British army unit and made for an eye-catching logo out of which stared the inevitable femme fatale with plunging neckline and gun in hand.
These lurid covers mirrored the racy content, glamorous settings and fast-moving intrigues of the pulp thrillers de Villiers typed on an old IBM electric typewriter at the rate of four a year. He claimed each book took six to eight weeks and he succeeded in cramming five into each of the last eight years of his life as he reached the 200 mark with La Vengeance Du Kremlin – The Kremlin’s Revenge – last month. “I never had any pretensions of being a literary writer,” he said last year. “I consider myself a storyteller who writes to amuse people.”
De Villiers did a prodigious amount of research on the ground. “You can’t really invent the atmosphere and feel of a city,” he said. “You have to go there.” He also tapped into a network of diplomats, journalists, military attachés and intelligence officials who provided useful information as well as suggestions for plots. This thorough approach enabled him to be ahead of the game on many occasions and led to The New York Times describing him as “The spy novelist who knows too much”. For example, Le Complot Du Caire – The Cairo Plot – published in 1981 foreshadowed the assassination of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, while La Traque Carlos, or The Hunt For Carlos (1994) predicted the eventual arrest of the terrorist Carlos the Jackal later the same year. His many intelligence contacts read his books differently from the man on the street, looking for clues and reading between the lines rather than taking the geopolitical intrigues at face value.
Unlike Frédéric Dard, whose San-Antonio series featured a detective in the French secret service, de Villiers made it a rule never to talk about France or the French secret service in his books. “I have never mentioned something I shouldn’t have,” he said in 2007. “It’s a ground rule I’ve followed for 40 years and all my friends who talk to me in absolute confidence are aware of it,” .
Prince Malko was occasionally compared to James Bond. However, the Bond franchise overshadowed the SAS books, which didn’t really gain a foothold in the Anglo-Saxon world despite their popularity in translation in countries like Germany, Japan and Russia. The brace of film adaptations of de Villiers novels made in the 1980s also failed to gain international traction. None the less Random House had recently offered him a deal to translate and publish five of his books in the US.
Born in Paris in 1929, he was the son of what he called a “womanising playwright” and an aristocrat mother. A graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques and the Ecole Supérieure de Journalisme, he served as an officer during the Algerian War. He then worked as a journalist for Paris-Presse, France Dimanche and Paris Match and reported on the Vietnam War as well as profiling celebrities holidaying on the French Riviera. Having risen to the bait of his editor, who encouraged him to fill the void left by Ian Fleming’s death in 1964, he created Prince Malko.
According to de Villiers, the character who first appeared in SAS à Istanbul in 1965 was “a composite of three real-life people: a chef de mission with the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage [SDECE, the External Documentation and Counter-Espionage Service], a German baron who owned a castle in Swabia and an Austrian arms dealer.” Indeed, de Villiers had a knack for incorporating the colourful types he met on his travels into his novels but usually changed just enough tell-tale details to get away with it.
He admitted that his hero shared some of his sexist and right-wing views which became increasingly tiresome and passé, and certainly politically incorrect as time wore on. “I am resolutely of the right, against communism, socialism and Islam, but I am no racist,” he stated. There was more than a whiff of the roué about him. “I am a womaniser,” he confessed. “That’s why I have so much trouble with wives.” He was married four times and estranged from his last wife.
A favourite read of Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the SAS novels appealed to men of a certain generation and political bent but, despite selling over 100 million books worldwide, de Villiers never attained the stature of John Le Carré or Tom Clancy and remained a bête noire of the French literary establishment. He increasingly found himself catering to a static readership, with hardly anyone under 40 buying his books in recent years. Self-published since 1998, he amassed a considerable fortune and lived in a palatial apartment overlooking the Arc de Triomphe.
Yet he undeniably still had his finger on the pulse of what makes terrorist groups tick. Published last year, Les Fous de Benghazi – The Madmen of Benghazi – dealt with the explosive situation in post-revolutionary Libya a few months before the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens and other embassy and CIA personnel based there were killed during a raid. “I’m not a prophet. I draw hypothetical conclusions about countries I know well and sometimes, they turn out to be true,” he said.
In a neat twist, M, Le Monde’s weekend magazine, outed him as a SDECE agent in August, only for de Villiers to include the lengthy profile as a postscript to his last SAS novel. A contrary man who could infuriate interviewers, he stipulated that his death, from pancreatic cancer, should be announced by his lawyer via Twitter. The 140 characters of the statement provided a fitting contrast to the 15 million words he had spent a lifetime writing.
Gérard de Villiers, novelist: born Paris 8 December 1929; four times married (one daughter, one son); died Paris 31 October 2013.