Gérard de Villiers may be the most famous French writer you’ve never heard of.
He churns out three sex-filled spy thrillers a year and sells millions of copies.
What’s interesting is that a number of his terrorist and espionage plot twists have actually happened in real life — well after they appeared in book form.
Read the Transcript
The text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI’s THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to email@example.com. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI’s THE WORLD is the program audio.
Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman. This is The World. The spy novel is a tricky genre to master, but the formula for success is simple: keep drama taut and the history accurate. One French spy novelist though is eerily accurate, sometimes anticipating history before it’s made. He’s Gerard de Villiers. The 83-year-old has cranked out nearly 200 installments in his SAS spy series. The James Bond of the series is Austrian prince and CIA agent, Malko Linge. The books have sold in the millions across the French speaking world. From the covers they look like the spy version of a bodice ripper, but it turns out intelligence officials around the world often dip into them for informal briefings on global hotspots. Robert Worth wrote a profile of de Villiers for The New York Times Sunday Magazine. He says the key to the author’s success is that he uses the tools and the sources of good journalism to create his mass market spy thrillers.
Robert Worth: About six months ago a French friend recommended that I read one of his recent ones. And it was after I did that, I was impressed with it and then I started talking to friends that work in the French diplomatic service. And I was amazed to find that they had all read him although in a somewhat chimp-faced way.
Werman: Well the narratives, I mean you can understand why they would be compelled to read them in a recent book called “Les Fous de Benghazi” (the crazies of Benghazi as in Benghazi, Libya) recounts the madness around a clandestine CIA post in Benghazi, but I guess also foretells the attack on the US consulate last September where Chris Stevens, the ambassador, and three others Americans died. Where does de Villiers get his intelligence?
Worth: Well he starts off with each book, according to what he told me, in Paris talking to people in the French intelligence service and related area, maybe diplomats, whatever, he researches that way what’s going on in the country. And he actually, you know, he’s been doing this for 50 years, so he keeps his eye on a whole range of countries. And when something interesting comes up he kind of gets himself briefed. Then he goes to the country and he talks to again, French diplomatic and intelligence people there. And many of these people he’s known for decades and so they’re willing to talk to him. And he’s usually only in the country for maximum two weeks, and then he comes back and puts it all together with remarkable speed.
Werman: Are French intelligence officers so generous with their information with everybody?
Worth: No, definitely not. I think it’s partly though that it’s fiction. You know, it’s less risky, but also because the characters in his books generally oddly enough are not French and so you know, if they give him information it’s gonna come out of somebody else’s moth in the book, which gives them a bit of cover. And also though there is a kind of cult of Gerard de Villiers, all these guys have been reading him for years, and years and years. And so you know, I think it’s kind of fun to become part of the story.
Werman: So government officials say they don’t read them, but they do. Did de Villiers ever get into trouble for how much he knows?
Worth: No, not to my knowledge.
Werman: Wow, that’s incredible. Did you find that extraordinary?
Worth: I sure did and that’s why I thought it was a funny story. And again, he’s really kind of an unusual person. He’s, nobody has precisely the position he does in the sense that he’s known these files for many, many, many years. He’s known the players and they feel that they can trust him.
Werman: You met him at his apartment in Paris. What’s he like?
Worth: I found him very charming. He’s 83 years old, but he has a lot of energy and he seems sharp as a tack. He knows these countries very well. He’s very interesting to talk to if you follow him at least. He’s got strong opinions, somewhat cynical. It’s funny, he’s in many ways very French, and yet I think his style is you know, it’s very, when he talks you know, French intellectuals trend to have a lot of, they’re voluble, they go on and on about ideas. He’s very to the point. I mean he’s very factual, brisk and a very nice, morbid sense of humor. He’s also though a great raconteur. He has all kinds of incredible stories about you know, things he’s encountered in his travels.
Werman: Your conversation with him about his book La Liste Hariri (the Hariri List) was pretty revealing. It’s a novel that revolves around the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri and the details of that plot, which were a mystery to many people. How accurate were they in the book?
Worth: Well, he always goes beyond what’s factual and what he knows just to make it a better plot. But the elements that are factual that he puts in are pretty remarkable. I mean he, everybody has presumed for a long time that Syria was behind it, but the trouble was that the Syrians covered their tracks. The international tribunal investigating it has made certain accusations. They were in the process of just starting to put these out when he published this book. And his information tracks with what they have, but he has an awful lot more about the way that Syria worked with Hezbollah to put this together. Now, it’s the kind of thing where much of this cannot actually be confirmed, but you know, people who I have talked to in Lebanon who I believe know much more than they can actually publicly say, have said the same king of things that he wrote about. I was kind of amazed to discover that not only do some diplomats read him, but that some people I’ve been friends with for years who just didn’t happen to mention it have been reading de Villiers. These are mostly European journalists, but some of them say they literally treat it as kind of a briefing you know, before they go to a country to get up to speed.
Werman: Everybody’s dirty little secret. We heard earlier in the program from a reporter on the latest in Mali in West Africa, a former French colony, and France seems to now have successfully routed Islamic militants there. It’s a kind of story ripe for a de Villiers treatment if he hasn’t done one yet. What do you think de Villiers’ books say about the close and even intimate ties still between France and its former colonies?
Worth: Well, you guess it. He’s been there already. He published the book several months ago, called Panique a Bamako.
Worth: I can’t say that it actually anticipates what happened with the French military involvement in Mali, but it’s certainly all the themes are there. It’s about you know, Jihadi groups there and–it’s actually more of course about the Americans and what they’re trying to do you know, behind the scenes maneuvering to sort of potentially find out what’s going on with these Islamist groups and how to fight them.
Werman: And for those ties with France and its former colonies there’s something I don’t know, that just feels something very cozy there between de Villiers and all these countries out there.
Worth: Absolutely, I mean I think France has been very, very concerned about what was going on in Mali for long before the Americans got to that level of concern, and I think that’s why he went. I mean you read it in French newspapers, I mean ever since it happened last March, the Islamists took over Northern Mali. I think that’s why he went and he had plenty of contacts there. It’s really an issue he’s been following for a long, long time.
Werman: Has the CIA ever commented on Malko Linge and this series of books?
Worth: Not to my knowledge. I did speak with a former CIA officer who knows de Villiers and got to be friends with him. I think it was the early ’90s in Paris. And it was kind of funny to–I asked this guy a series of questions about various people who were you know, important or interesting. And he told me some stories and stuff. And on several occasions at the end of this story I said, “Well how did you meet that interesting person? ” “Oh, de Villiers introduced me.” And this guy mentioned to me as I cited in the story that he recommends de Villiers to CIA analysts.
Werman: Robert Worth with The New York Times profiled the French spy novelists, Gerard de Villiers. Thanks very much for telling us about him.
Worth: It’s a pleasure.
Copyright ©2012 PRI’s THE WORLD. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to PRI’s THE WORLD. This transcript may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission. For further information, please email The World’s Permissions Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.