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Gérard de Villiers, 83, French spy-thriller writer

Gérard de Villiers called his 200 novels “fairy tales for adults,” but they contained real-world intelligence secrets.

PATRICK KOVARIK/AFP/Getty Images/file 2007

Gérard de Villiers called his 200 novels “fairy tales for adults,” but they contained real-world intelligence secrets.

NEW YORK — Gérard de Villiers, a French popular novelist whose raffish, long-running spy-thriller series, SAS, sold more than 100 million copies and became a kind of drop-box for real-world secrets from intelligence agencies around the world, died Thursday in Paris. He was 83.

The cause was cancer, his lawyer, Eric Morain, said.

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Mr. de Villiers was often compared to Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, who served as an inspiration when Mr. de Villiers created his own fictional spy hero — Son Altesse Sérénissime, or His Serene Highness, was his code name — in 1964 after a decade as a journalist. Although largely unknown in the Anglophone world, SAS may be the longest-running fiction series ever written by a single author, and one of the best-selling.

For all the kinky sex and gunplay that fueled his plots, Mr. de Villiers remained a journalist at heart, and his books were based on constant travel and reporting in dozens of countries. He cultivated spies and diplomats, and he insinuated himself so thoroughly into their world that many sought him out and were then delighted to see themselves appear — always under different names — in his novels.

A string of French presidents and foreign ministers read him regularly and praised his geopolitical acumen, though rarely in public. In between the sex scenes, his books often contained details of terrorist attacks, espionage, and war that had not appeared anywhere else.

On several famous occasions he was even ahead of the news: In 1980 he wrote a novel in which Islamist militants kill President Anwar Sadat of Egypt a year before the actual assassination took place. And after the Arab uprisings broke out in 2011, he wrote books about the civil wars in Syria and Libya that eerily prefigured some of the worst violence there.

As a writer, he was unapologetically formulaic; he called his books “fairy tales for adults” and cranked out five a year in recent years, with no help. The last, “La Vengeance du Kremlin,” published in October, is No. 200. Even after suffering a torn aorta in 2010 that left him dependent on a walker, Mr. de Villiers continued to travel to Afghanistan, Mali, Libya and other war zones.

Generations of readers have become familiar with the lurid covers of his SAS books — always a scantily clad woman clutching a gun — at supermarkets and railway stations across France. He set up his own publishing line a decade ago, increasing his profits, which ran from $1 million to $1.3 million a year.

Mr. de Villiers loved to flaunt his right-wing political views and was often labeled a racist and anti-Semite by French intellectuals. But his politics were partly provocation, and he earned a grudging respect from some liberals in recent years.

Gérard de Villiers was born in Paris in Dec. 8, 1929, to a middle-class family with aristocratic origins. His father was a prolific playwright, often absent from home, who went by the stage name Jacques Deval.

After his military service, Mr. de Villiers wrote for France Soir and other newspapers in the 1950s. His first encounter with spies was almost a fatal one: During a reporting assignment in Tunisia, he agreed to do a favor for a French intelligence officer and discovered that he was a pawn in an assassination scheme. That adventure, he later said, left him with a taste for intrigue.

A decade later, he was working on a detective novel in his spare time when an editor told him that Ian Fleming had died. “You should take over,” the editor said.

Mr. de Villiers then created his signature spy hero, Malko Linge, by blending three real-life acquaintances: a French intelligence official, an Austrian arms dealer and a German baron. The first Malko Linge novel, “SAS in Istanbul,” appeared in 1965.

Malko Linge is a far cry from James Bond: He is an Austrian aristocrat who works on contract for the CIA, mainly to make money for the upkeep of his castle. He pivots between an Old World life of hunting and galas in Austria and deadly spy missions in conflict zones around the world. Malko is continuously unfaithful to his Austrian fiancée, Alexandra, but never at home.

Mr. de Villiers did not disguise his own struggles with fidelity; married four times, he was estranged from his wife at the time of his death. He leaves a son, a daughter, and four grandchildren.

Soon after he began writing the SAS series, Mr. de Villiers formed a bond with Alexandre de Marenches, a legendary Cold War spy chief who directed France’s foreign intelligence service from 1970 to 1981. Marenches, like Mr. de Villiers’s fictional protagonist, was from an old aristocratic family, a man of great charisma who helped build a clandestine network of operatives to fight Soviet spies in Africa and the Middle East.

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