I was left scratching my head at the recent news that Michael Fassbender will produce and star in a Hollywood film adaptation of the ‘Malko’ series of paperbacks by Gerard de Villiers. Why Malko? Why not Mack Bolan? Why not Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm? The paperbacks I’ve seen on the used bookshelves sure don’t look like much.
The Malko series (called the S.A.S. series in France) began in 1964 and was written in French by Gerard de Villiers (1929-2013) with 200 installments and millions upon millions of copies sold. An English translation of the first book in the American numbering scheme, “West of Jerusalem” was released by Pinnacle Books in August 1973. The novel was installment #9 in France, but I get the impression that series order isn’t all that important in the Malkoverse, so I picked up a copy at the used bookstore to see what all the fuss was about.
The series hero is Malko Linge, an Austrian prince who graduated from Harvard in 1954 and has been working on a contract basis for the CIA for a decade when we join him in the 1960s. He inherited a castle in Austria that is in need of serious renovations, so he continues taking CIA gigs to generate sufficient cash flow to pay contractors. Malko’s foreign background provides the operative with instant cover and credibility while operating overseas. His public face is that of a dashing international jet-setting playboy - pretty much the truth for the Austrian nobleman. As is typical in these type of books, Malko is the best we have.
“West of Jerusalem” opens with the dramatic public suicide of the CIA director. His aides and colleagues are baffled by his mysterious demise and turn to Malko to investigate the reason. The trajectory of the case sends Malko to New York, Switzerland and beyond with plenty of action along the way. The novel has a block of key scenes in the 1960s psychedelic subculture - a setting I’ve always found annoying and cliched. There’s also some rather retrograde depictions of gay people in the story. Bear in mind, the paperback was originally published in 1967, so these quibbles are really just artifacts of the era.
Even though Pinnacle packaged the novel with a corny painted cover indicative of the publisher’s lowbrow early-1970s offerings, Malko has more in common with Ian Fleming’s James Bond than Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan. Malko is a professional spy conducting an investigative mission in order to solve a vexing mystery. There’s plenty of violent action, but it’s never cartoonish or over-the-top as we see in The Butcher or The Penetrator paperbacks. Moreover, the villain’s plan is reasonable - nothing silly like a Nick Carter: Killmaster story. There’s also a realism to the author’s writing unseen in other big-font, painted-cover paperbacks of the era. The English translation is solid with no indication that the original manuscript was written in French. Moreover, this is a CIA adventure (as opposed to a French intel service), so readers of American spy fiction will find themselves on familiar cultural ground.
With some minor quibbles, I enjoyed the hell out of this fast-moving, well-written paperback, and I now have a better understanding why the series was wildly-popular in Europe. I can’t wait to hunt down other early entries and review them for you here. Regarding the forthcoming Hollywood adaptation, I’m no longer asking why. A better question is: Why did they wait this long?
Buy a copy of this book HERE