Obituary: Guy des Cars

Guy Augustin Marie Jean de Perusse des Cars, novelist: born Paris 6 May 1911; died Paris 20 December 1993.

NOTHING in his aristocratic background appeared to predestine Guy Augustin Marie Jean de Perusse des Cars to be a best-selling popular novelist. His father was a young military attache in London when at a Victorian debutante ball he met his future wife, the daughter of the President of Chile. She was vivacious, pretty, devout, full of romantic dreams but with a great sense of humour. She wrote many adventure stories and fairytales for her three sons. Guy was later to pay tribute to her: 'It is to her, and to all the women in my life, that I owe my powers of imagination. Without women, I could never have become a novelist.'

Guy des Cars was born in 1911 and educated by the Jesuits at Evroux; he was a brilliant but unpredictable pupil, who passed all his examinations with almost playful ease. He seemed all set for the military academy at St Cyr and a life in the army. His father wanted him to join the cavalry, though his mother prayed for him to become a priest. At 19 he visited his mother's family in Chile, and played at being a gaucho roaming the pampas. On board ship on his way back to France, he wrote a bright little comedy, Croisiere pour dames seules ('Cruise for Unattached Ladies') which ran for a hundred performances.

Despite this success his family were horrified, and cut off his allowance. So Guy tried to make a precarious living with journalism, writing on everything under the sun - fashion (as 'Giglio'), foreign policy (as 'Vieux Diplomate'). Then he became a real saltimbanque, when he took on the direction of the Pinder Circus, with which he travelled all over Europe. Life in the circus was to provide the background for his second novel, La Dame du Cirque (1943).

The Second World War broke out when he was 28. He was mobilised and sent to the front but soon returned, with the Croix de Guerre - and with the manuscript of his first book, L'Officier sans nom ('The Nameless Officer'), a picaresque novel about army life in the drole de guerre (phoney war), which had a tremendous success with a war-weary public, who perhaps found in it some consolation for France's defeat. It just missed the Goncourt Prize by one vote. It also had the offset of reconciling him with his family.

It was the start of a long non-stop writing career, during which Guy des Cars wrote 60 popular novels, each initially issued in editions of 700,000, many of them going into sales of millions. He wrote sensational best-sellers with lurid covers usually showing a femme fatale in some perilous predicament. They were first published by the highly respectable firm of Flammarion; then appeared in the J'ai Lu paperback series (which eventually sold 32 million copies), bearing seductive, disturbing or enigmatic titles like L'Impure, La Brute, La Lepreuse, La Corruptrice - the titles speak for themselves.

He was condemned by the intelligentsia as a 'railway bookstall novelist' - earning him the nickname of 'Guy des Gares'. He didn't care: 'Being a popular novelist is no problem for me - but being an unpopular one would be.'

He was translated into 21 languages. His books could be found in every airport, supermarket checkout, in second-hand book boxes along the Seine or in small towns on market days, on stalls where the copies had obviously passed through many eager hands.

Des Cars could do a novel a year: nine months' gestation, three months' writing. He commanded an extraordinary cast of bizarre and fascinating characters from all layers of society - defrocked lesbian nuns, transsexuals, sadists, nymphomaniacs. Yet he spent three months in a leprosy hospital on Fiji to prepare for the writing of L'Impure. There are sordid love affairs and improbable passions. But he also wrote about surrogate mothers in La Mere porteuse (1986) and the Chinese atom bomb in Le Grand monde (1966). His language, as in life, was vivid, robust and maliciously witty. Grotesque black humour often lit the most tragic pages. He had a classical training, and it showed in the effective simplicity of his style; to the end of his life he read the classics in the original. He said: 'I am a storyteller telling complicated tales using simple words. Critics and intellectuals are shit - just like politicians.'

Questioned about the pathological problems of his heroines, he replied: 'Woman is an admirable example of a permanent pathological condition.' As for carping critics, he ignored them: 'I have no fashionable literary complexes. I have readers.' His son revealed that Guy des Cars had died with pen in hand, still writing his last novel.