By Aliza Goldberg
Set in Egypt and Libya in the aftermath of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s death, Gérard de Villiers’ The Madmen of Benghazi illustrates the terror and confusion of the Arab Spring, and the plight of Ibrahim al-Senussi, a fictional Libyan prince from England.
Full of the suspense and lust typically found in spy novels, The Madmen of Benghazi exceeds expectation by weaving the personalities of terrorists and CIA agents with those of European and Middle Eastern civilians for a nuanced and layered plot.
Freelance CIA agent Malko Linge commands the novel, at one moment seducing al-Senussi’s beautiful girlfriend, Cynthia Mulligan, and at the next moment interrogating an Islamist operative in an arms smuggling ring. Trusting no one, Malko seems to understand everything–even when the reader doesn’t yet.
Malko is gentle and honest, but still views people as pawns. The crux of The Madmen of Benghazi isn’t the madmen, such as the notable and power-hungry Abu Bukatalla, but rather the broader political web and Malko’s process of untangling it (and having a lot of sex in the process).
Here are the chaotic elements Malko must grapple with: Bukatalla seeks to rule Libya, the CIA would prefer al-Senussi rule and spread democracy, al-Senussi second guesses his leadership ability, everyone wants to kill each other, and Cynthia has sex with women sometimes.
The descriptions of Cairo and Benghazi hold the novel together, making the political danger feel more palpable. De Villiers’ portrait of Benghazi goes beyond the fires and riots seen in newspaper photographs, depicting landscapes such as, “Wide, empty avenues in a city as flat as a pancake. Few pedestrians, the occasional local shop, hardly any stoplights, and lots of cars. Endless rows of walls encircling hidden properties alternated with empty lots and little clusters of buildings.” With backdrops like that, de Villiers’ characters become more imaginable.
De Villiers’ characters are not fully formed, however, playing into spy archetypes. Cynthia, the promiscuous English model, serves as a body to please al-Senussi and Malko, but does not have a voice besides crying when caught in a crossfire or expressing desire to help al-Senussi become king of Libya so that she can become a queen.
Nevertheless, with so many characters lying about their identity and interacting with each other in surprising and dangerous scenarios, it would be difficult for the reader to trust any very developed character anyway. The reader becomes attached to the characters just enough to make car chases suspenseful and murders tragic.
The hot topic of the Arab Spring and its aftereffects becomes much more vivid in The Madmen of Benghazi. De Villiers has taken a classic spy thriller foundation reminiscent of the 1950’s and updated it with modern-day concerns.
Published by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House, The Madmen of Benghazi was released on July 29, 2014.
Aliza Goldberg is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal and a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
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