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The story of criminal mastermind Charles Sobhraj has captivated true crime followers for more than 40 years. The serial killer left a trail of bodies — mostly young European and North American backpackers — across Asia in the 1970s, then stunned everyone when he escaped from prison not once but at least four times.
(Caution: Spoilers ahead! Do not read until you have watched “The Serpent.”)
Now on Netflix, the devious con man’s story is an eight-part docudrama from Mammoth Screen first shown on BBC, created by Tom Shankland and Richard Warlow. The creators decided to frame the story around Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg, who spent years on the trail of Sobhraj and was key to his eventual arrest. They interviewed Knippenberg along with several other real-life figures who are still alive. However, they did not speak with the imprisoned Sobhraj, who has already sensationally manipulated his own story over the years.
Young people embarking on backpacking trips in Asia in the 1970s and ’80s were sometimes cautioned to first read Thomas Thompson’s book “Serpentine,” which told the story of Sobhraj, his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (known as “Monique”) and their seductive approach to wooing his victims. The lengthy account of his crimes was a non-fiction bestseller and a useful cautionary tale about the dangers of overly-helpful “friends” offering free drinks. But the producers of “The Serpent” didn’t adapt the series from a book; instead they based it on interviews that recounted the real life story of Sobhraj.
“The Serpent” convincingly pulls in viewers with a wealth of period detail, from impeccable ’70s threads to getting your mail at Poste Restante to the ubiquitous “apple strudel” sign on Katmandu storefronts. At the time, young travelers on the “hippie trail” in Asia were seen both by authorities and in the media as druggies or sexually permissive, and tracking down their killers wasn’t always a priority for authorities in several different countries. Without social media, email or even the ability to easily phone home, it’s easy to see how the backpackers, far from their homes and cultures, could have been taken in by a friendly, sophisticated couple offering meals, parties and jobs.
Are there any other movies about Sobhraj?
A 1989 TV movie called “Shadow of the Cobra” was based on the book “The Life and Crime of Charles Sobhraj” by Richard Neville and Julie Clarke. “Homeland” actor Art Malik starred as Sobhraj. At least four documentaries have been made about his life, as well as an Indian docudrama based on his escape from the Delhi prison.
Nadine and Monique poolside in Bangkok in “The Serpent”
BBC/© Mammoth Screen
Why was the book “Serpentine” never adapted as a film or TV series?
Sobhraj has tried to sell rights to his story many times, reportedly trying charge up to $15 million, but factual information is not copyrightable, so anyone can make a story around on facts in the media or from independent interviews. Since his story covers so much ground, it might have been difficult to fit into a two-hour feature film.
How many times did Sobhraj escape from prison?
He escaped from prison and hospital confinement at least four times. Twice he escaped by feigning illness and then drugging the hospital guards.
Who really cracked the case?
As shown in the series, the tenacious Knippenberg and his wife Angela Kane, who later became a high-ranking United Nations official, were indeed key to getting Sobhraj finally convicted in Nepal, 28 years after the murders of Laurent Carrière and Connie Bronzich. However, Kane told The Mirror she thought her role had been downplayed in the series, and she was more of a true partner to her husband in pursuing justice. In addition, Thai Interpol colonel Sompol Suthimai, who was also investigating Sobhraj in the 1970s, “provided invaluable procedural understanding,” said Shankland.
Was the series really filmed in Thailand, Greece, New Zealand, Nepal and India?
Filming started out in Thai locations including Bangkok and the seaside village of Hua Hin. But after production was shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, the bulk of the remaining scenes were shot several months later in Hertfordshire, outside of London, including portions set in Kabul, Paris, Mumbai and Delhi.
What happened to Sobhraj’s daughter?
Sobhraj had a daughter who is briefly shown in “The Serpent” with his first wife, Chantal Compagnon. The daughter, Usha, is in her early 50s and is said to live in the U.S. He may also have had other children.
What really happened to Ajay Chowdrury?
He was last seen after he travelled to Malaysia with Sobhraj and Marie-Andree in 1976. Though Sobhraj’s accomplice was reportedly once seen in Germany, the sighting was never verified. His remains have never been found and his case remains open.
Did Marie-Andree (Monique) ever help the authorities track Charles down or turn on him in any way?
She stayed loyal to him to the end of her (short) life, testifying in his defense at his murder trial in India. After they were both imprisoned in Delhi, she was eventually allowed to leave the country on compassionate grounds as she was suffering from ovarian cancer. She died in Canada in 1984 at just 38 years old, after writing her story in the book “Je reviens” (I’ll Be Back).