The Madmen of Benghazi
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In Gerard de Villiers The Madmen of Benghazi, it happened on the sixth page. The aspiring king of Libya, who turns out to be no more than a patsy, is compared to a “sexual tornado” and within six sentences, Villiers assures us that al-Senussi has “an unusually long cock” and his lover, Cynthia, tells him “You’re very big.” As the opening page describes his lover’s body, we know we’re in for absurdly terrible sex scenes—the type that idealize an oil rig as a sexual metaphor and make you hope that the author isn’t as “good” a sex partner as his male heroes, otherwise it’s easy to feel bad for lovers he’s had. This leads to the hope that the book is a winking parody. In this case, the curiosity is heightened by the author photo: is that hat a straight-faced joke, or does he think that dead animal on his head is working for him? Unfortunately, the suspicious remains that it’s the latter, in both situations.
The hero of the book, part of a series of around 200, is Malko Linge, a freelance CIA agent, hired this time solely for his ability to “seduce any woman alive,” the target being Cynthia. Villiers’s work is compared to Ian Fleming, Malko to James Bond, and the connection is easy to see, in both the positives and the negatives. Unfortunately, in reading Fleming, the sexism, the touches of racism (strong in Fleming, mild in Villiers and more due sloppily conceived minor characters in general), are easier to overlook with the adjustment that you are reading fifty-year-old books. It’s rougher when the book is both contemporary and outdated.
Linge is hired, other than to seduce Cynthia, to find out which Muslim terrorists are trying to kill the would-be-king. It is this, the pure spy thriller based aspects that make the rest of Villiers writing so frustrating. The Madmen of Benghazi is set during the time of Gaddafi’s overthrow and the struggle for control of Libya. Villiers uses this historical setting to put multiple factions into play. Different groups—the CIA, journalists, tribal leaders, terrorists—have their own motivations, leading to alliances being drawn and broken, then new ones made. His other books also take place in real-world situations and time periods. By setting his books this way, they separate from Fleming and have a new appeal. It opens the opportunity for an entertaining combination of the news and an over the top spy-world version of it.
This use of current events, culture shifts, and history, is the most complicated and enticing aspect of the book, significantly more engaging than the dreadfully flat characters, who barely have personalities or thoughts that aren’t Villiers brutally pushing the plot around. The manipulations of those who want to institute Islamic rule, using the same sad, hapless patsy that MI6 and the CIA are using to establish their own control of Libya is entertaining to follow, but surrounded by blocks of filler, mind-dulling filler.
The most developed character is the enemy, Abu Bukatalla. He sees more of the pieces of the puzzle than anyone else, which makes him a legitimate threat. Well into the book, al-Senussi thinks Bukatalla is on his side, instead of trying to kill him, enough so that al-Senussi keeps secrets from the Western powers working to put him in power. Following al-Senussi’s descent from overly masculine aspiring king to scared boy who just wants to go home is the type of character trajectory that thrillers are best suited for: straightforward, but not simplistic. It almost makes al-Senussi’s terrible sex scenes a parody of masculinity, but there’s still too much idealization.
That these things work makes the flaws of the book that much frustrating. Villiers ability to repeat himself, and not just to clarify that a cock is large, is astounding:
They passed the large British diplomatic compound, which ran along a hundred yards of riverfront, then left the Nile for the narrow streets of Saadan City.
Once again, Malko found himself in a new country without quiet knowing why.
In a friendly phone call, the CIA station chief in Vienna had asked him of he wouldn’t mind going to Cairo for the Agency. Without telling him why, of course.
The Madmen of Benghazi is like this throughout, worse when revisiting a scene from another character’s perspective. It’s not a different take, just confirmation. Reader, did you forget what you learned earlier in the page? Here is it again. It may not only be that Villiers thinks his reader is a moron capable of forgetting anything he’s read; it could be that Villiers works so quickly that he loses track himself. This theory is given credence by other moments. In one scene, after the summary of a terrorist attack in the ’80s, “A hush descended on the CIA station chief’s office. It was wearing a black armband.” Whether the hush or the office is managing to wear an armband is unclear, but either way it’s an impressive feat.
Much of this sloppiness is irrelevant to the fun of thrillers: plot and action. Yet that’s not always the case. Minor characters appear and disappear with little relevance, and even action scenes can be confused. An assassin follows Malko in a crowd, and thinks on how he has killed like this before, cleanly and quickly, with people around. Yet this time, “habit was stronger than caution, and before striking he yelled ‘Allahu akbar!’ at the top of his lungs.” This of course gives his murder attempt time to be interrupted. It’s an absurd version of a henchman and again I asked, if this was parody. If only he tripped over his own feet.
These qualities of the writing could be overlooked if it weren’t for greater offenses. To compare Villiers to Fleming again: one of the things that works in the Bond novels is that they are so slim. They are quick affairs, nothing is dragged on or padded out the way Madmen of Benghazi is. The worst of padding is the sexism. Each time Cynthia enters a scene, Villiers is sure to describe just what affect her clothes are having on her breasts or legs. It’s as endless and boring as it is sexist.
I can object to the pathetic portrayal of Cynthia as a feminist, but just as a reader who wants to be entertained, it’s disappointing. She exists simply to be erotic (but that’s more awkward than anything else, as when she “masturbates [Malko] with her pussy”), for the men to have sex with, and for Villiers to have a talking, performing, object. When he needs conflict, she will stand up for herself; when Malko needs to be shown a hero, she is a hysterical and clueless woman he can save or calm; when the plan needs another person, she is capable again. The incoherency of her personality is eye-rolling and momentum stopping. The type of sexism is mind-numbing in its boringness.
Madmen of Benghazi has its entertaining scenes, a well-orchestrated ending, and the social-political take is something Villiers understands. But the clumsy writing, the incredibly flat hero (Malko’s seduction skills consist simply of being alive), the non-existent secondary characters, and the sexist caricature make it a slog. Were much of this cut to make it an incredibly rapid read, there’d be a sliver of hope.