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The Spy Novelist Who Knows Too Much

31 January 2013

From The New York Times:

Last June, a pulp-fiction thriller was published in Paris under the title “Le Chemin de Damas.” Its lurid green-and-black cover featured a busty woman clutching a pistol, and its plot included the requisite car chases, explosions and sexual conquests. Unlike most paperbacks, though, this one attracted the attention of intelligence officers and diplomats on three continents. Set in the midst of Syria’s civil war, the book offered vivid character sketches of that country’s embattled ruler, Bashar al-Assad, and his brother Maher, along with several little-known lieutenants and allies. It detailed a botched coup attempt secretly supported by the American and Israeli intelligence agencies. And most striking of all, it described an attack on one of the Syrian regime’s command centers, near the presidential palace in Damascus, a month before an attack in the same place killed several of the regime’s top figures. “It was prophetic,” I was told by one veteran Middle East analyst who knows Syria well and preferred to remain nameless. “It really gave you a sense of the atmosphere inside the regime, of the way these people operate, in a way I hadn’t seen before.”

The book was the latest by Gérard de Villiers, an 83-year-old Frenchman who has been turning out the S.A.S. espionage series at the rate of four or five books a year for nearly 50 years. The books are strange hybrids: top-selling pulp-fiction vehicles that also serve as intelligence drop boxes for spy agencies around the world. De Villiers has spent most of his life cultivating spies and diplomats, who seem to enjoy seeing themselves and their secrets transfigured into pop fiction (with their own names carefully disguised), and his books regularly contain information about terror plots, espionage and wars that has never appeared elsewhere. Other pop novelists, like John le Carré and Tom Clancy, may flavor their work with a few real-world scenarios and some spy lingo, but de Villiers’s books are ahead of the news and sometimes even ahead of events themselves. Nearly a year ago he published a novel about the threat of Islamist groups in post-revolutionary Libya that focused on jihadis in Benghazi and on the role of the C.I.A. in fighting them. The novel, “Les Fous de Benghazi,” came out six months before the death of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, and included descriptions of the C.I.A. command center in Benghazi (a closely held secret at that time), which was to become central in the controversy over Stevens’s death. Other de Villiers books have included even more striking auguries. In 1980, he wrote a novel in which militant Islamists murder the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, a year before the actual assassination took place. When I asked him about it, de Villiers responded with a Gallic shrug. “The Israelis knew it was going to happen,” he said, “and did nothing.”

. . . .

Though he is almost unknown in the United States, de Villiers’s publishers estimate that the S.A.S. series has sold about 100 million copies worldwide, which would make it one of the top-selling series in history, on a par with Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. S.A.S. may be the longest-running fiction series ever written by a single author. The first book, “S.A.S. in Istanbul,” appeared in March 1965; de Villiers is now working on No. 197.

For all their geopolitical acumen, de Villiers’s books tend to provoke smirks from the French literati. (“Sorry, monsieur, we do not carry that sort of thing here,” I was told by the manager at one upscale Paris bookstore.)

Link to the rest at The New York Times and the Gérard de Villiers Amazon author page (check out the number of books) and thanks to John for the tip.

Books in General, Non-US

10 Comments to “The Spy Novelist Who Knows Too Much”

  1. I just read the whole story. Wow. His life is like a spy novel in and of itself. And his output is almost incomprehensible. Go man go.

  2. Wow, a modern day Ian Fleming!

    During World War II there was a story published in Astounding Science Fiction about nuclear bombs that made the authorities nervous. Its author allegedly got a visit from the feds…. :(

    He didn’t have any inside information. But you gotta wonder about this guy…

    EDITED TO AD:

    I’m thinking the writer was named Cleve Cartmill, but I’m not really sure about that.

  3. Fascinating! Are his books available in English? (No, I didn’t click through this time. Mea culpa!)

  4. Very interesting guy.

  5. Yeah, this is a great article. Amazing how he’s able to get so much information. Does any one know if he has English translations?

  6. I explored. Amazon France told me I could only buy from Amazon US. I checked Amazon US – it has third party vendors for some of his books, price and shipping a touch too high. As far as I could tell, no English versions. Reading his books in French would be a good way to get your language comprehension and reading level up…

  7. I live in Switzerland where my local magazine shop, Naville of the chain of shops strung all over the country, has a special display case for his SAS novels at the entrance to the store, like cigarettes or candy bars. I had no idea from the lurid covers that they were so interesting. As I read French, I’ll give him another look.

  8. A few weeks before the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy, the guy who crafted the London Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle got a visit from MI5, asking why several of the answers to his puzzles contained the words “Overlord”, “Utah”, “Omaha”, and “Mulberry”–all code words connected with the invasion. In this case, it turned out to be just a coincidence.

  9. My immediate thought was “Is this the guy from the Dos XX’s commercial?” :)

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