Gérard de Villiers is the spy novelist who knows too much — because everyone talks to him:
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.
De Villiers created Malko, his hero, in 1964 by merging three real-life acquaintances: a high-ranking French intelligence official named Yvan de Lignières; an Austrian arms dealer; and a German baron named Dieter von Malsen-Ponickau. As is so often the case, though, his fiction proved prophetic. Five years after he began writing the series, de Villiers met Alexandre de Marenches, a man of immense charisma who led the French foreign-intelligence service for more than a decade and was a legend of cold-war spy craft. De Marenches was very rich and came from one of France’s oldest families; he fought heroically in World War II, and he later built his own castle on the Riviera. He also helped create a shadowy international network of intelligence operatives known as the Safari Club, which waged clandestine battles against Soviet operatives in Africa and the Middle East. “He was doing intelligence for fun,” de Villiers told me. “Sometimes he didn’t even pick up the phone when Giscard called him.” In short, de Marenches was very close to being the aristocratic master spy de Villiers had imagined, and as their friendship deepened in the 1970s, de Villiers’s relationship with French intelligence also deepened and lasts to this day.
When I asked whether it bothered him that no one took his books seriously, he did not seem at all defensive. “I don’t consider myself a literary man,” he said. “I’m a storyteller. I write fairy tales for adults. And I try to put some substance into it.”
I had no idea what kind of “substance” until a friend urged me to look at “La Liste Hariri,” one of de Villiers’s many books set in and around Lebanon. The book, published in early 2010, concerns the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. I spent years looking into and writing about Hariri’s death, and I was curious to know what de Villiers made of it. I found the descriptions of Beirut and Damascus to be impressively accurate, as were the names of restaurants, the atmosphere of the neighborhoods and the descriptions of some of the security chiefs that I knew from my tenure as The Times’ Beirut bureau chief. But the real surprise came later. “La Liste Hariri” provides detailed information about the elaborate plot, ordered by Syria and carried out by Hezbollah, to kill Hariri. This plot is one of the great mysteries of the Middle East, and I found specific information that no journalists, to my knowledge, knew at the time of the book’s publication, including a complete list of the members of the assassination team and a description of the systematic elimination of potential witnesses by Hezbollah and its Syrian allies. I was even more impressed when I spoke to a former member of the U.N.-backed international tribunal, based in the Netherlands, that investigated Hariri’s death. “When ‘La Liste Hariri’ came out, everyone on the commission was amazed,” the former staff member said. “They were all literally wondering who on the team could have sold de Villiers this information — because it was very clear that someone had showed him the commission’s reports or the original Lebanese intelligence reports.”
When I put the question to de Villiers, a smile of discreet triumph flashed on his face. It turns out that he has been friends for years with one of Lebanon’s top intelligence officers, an austere-looking man who probably knows more about Lebanon’s unsolved murders than anyone else. It was he who handed de Villiers the list of Hariri’s killers. “He worked hard to get it, and he wanted people to know,” de Villiers said. “But he couldn’t trust journalists.” I was one of those he didn’t trust. I have interviewed the same intelligence chief multiple times on the subject of the Hariri killing, but he never told me about the list. De Villiers had also spoken with high-ranking Hezbollah officials, in meetings that he said were brokered by French intelligence. One assumes these men had not read his fiction.
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