When British writer Richard Warlow set out to dramatize the story of swindler and serial killer Charles Sobhraj—think The Talented Mr. Ripley on steroids—he was determined not to glamorize his subject. At the height of his infamy in the 1970s, the suave Vietnamese-Indian Frenchman lured at least a dozen trusting young tourists to their deaths in southeast Asia. Dubbed “the Serpent” by the press after he became the subject of an Interpol manhunt in 1976, Sobhraj preyed upon unsuspecting hippies, drug smugglers, and other travelers in India, Nepal, and Thailand—spiking their drinks, stealing their valuables, and brutally murdering them. He then traveled using their passports, so it wasn’t always apparent that his victims were missing.
Rather than detailing all of Sobhraj’s heinous crimes for his limited series The Serpent, out on Netflix April 2 (with Tahar Rahim in the title role), Warlow—who knows about serial killers, having created Ripper Street, about Jack the Ripper—focused on the unlikely hero instrumental in bringing the master manipulator down: Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle), a Dutch functionary with a master’s degree in advanced international studies.
“What I was really interested in were these two really diametrically opposed types of men [who] have the most devastating effect on each other’s lives,” Warlow recently told Vanity Fair. “One…was the kind of man that one thinks of when one thinks of the international man of mystery—very handsome, very well-dressed. And the other one was, to use the vernacular of the time, a bit more of a square.”
In 1976, Knippenberg was a 31-year-old junior diplomat in his country’s embassy in Bangkok when he received a letter from the relative of two missing backpackers. The correspondence eventually led him to discover that the couple had been poisoned and burned alive by Sobhraj. It also launched the Dutchman’s years-long mission to unmask Sobhraj and have him and his accomplices—French-Canadian girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (played in the series by Jenna Coleman) and Indian henchman Ajay Chowdhury (Amesh Edireweera)—arrested.
To adapt the story, Warlow spoke with many of the real-life people who would eventually become characters on his show. His key source was Knippenberg, now 76 years old and retired, who gave the creator access to his files. Warlow allowed Knippenberg to read scripts. He did the same with other people from the killer’s orbit, including Sobhraj’s intrepid neighbors Nadine and Remi Gires (played onscreen by Mathilde Warnier and Grégoire Isvarine) and now-retired Thai Interpol colonel Sompol Suthimai.
Warlow also listened to the confessions Sobhraj later retracted, taped by Julie Clarke and her now deceased husband, Richard, who interviewed Sobhraj for their 1979 book, The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj.
Concentrating on Knippenberg’s perspective meant omitting some of Sobhraj’s most outrageous exploits, which Warlow conceded are “absolutely staggering. Some of the shit that he pulled…if you put it in a drama, people would watch it and go, ‘You’re having me on. That never happened.’”
Though the exact number of his victims isn’t known, what is certain is that before Sobhraj was imprisoned in India in 1976 for drugging a group of French engineering students (not Germans, as depicted in the show), he had already escaped incarceration three times: In Greece, he’d convinced his adoring younger brother to swap identities and serve his sentence after they had robbed a businessman who later recognized Sobhraj on a plane; in India, after holding a flamenco dancer hostage while robbing a Delhi hotel jewelry store, he’d faked appendicitis in prison, and escaped after surgery.
In Afghanistan, he and his first wife, Chantal Compagnon, were arrested for running out on a hotel bill and stealing a car. (Stacy Martin’s Serpent character, Juliette, is partially based on Chantal.) A jailed Sobhraj drugged a guard, drove to Paris, drugged his grandmother-in-law, abducted the couple’s daughter, and then traveled back toward Afghanistan, hoping to spring Chantal. During this period, he’s alleged to have killed a Pakistani taxi driver—“which many believe was his first [murder] victim,” Warlow explained. “And then he is arrested in Tehran…by which time, Chantal’s parents get her released from prison. She is reunited with her daughter….meets an American carpet seller, and moves to the U.S. with him.” As in the series, the couple later reunited. In interviews, Sobhraj, ever the fabulist, intimated that Compagnon supported him financially for years.
In 1986, with little time left on his Indian sentence, Sobhraj orchestrated another prison break to avoid being extradited to Thailand, where he would face additonal murder charges on a warrant set to expire after 20 years. As in the series, an imprisoned Leclerc received compassionate leave after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and, in 1983, went home to Canada to die. Chowdhury has reportedly never been caught.
The big question is, why in 2003, Sobhraj—who had been a free man in Paris since 1997—went back to Nepal, where he was wanted for murdering two people: American Connie Jo Bronzich and Canadian Laurent Carrière.
“I’m really kind of happy to just throw out the strangeness of it and have us wonder why that might be,” Warlow said. But he and Knippenberg, at least, have theories.
Knippenberg told The Serpent creator that when he returned to Nepal, Sobhraj was charging American tourists thousands of dollars to dine with him. He had also sold his story to Hollywood, only to see an adaptation go nowhere, and his notoriety had waned. “He needs to reinflate his own celebrity. So he goes to the one country where he’s still wanted,” posited Warlow. “The other thing to know about Charles is that he had this incredibly arrogant belief that wherever he went in that part of the world, the police force was either incompetent or corruptible. So he wouldn’t have considered himself to be in any danger of being finally apprehended.”
This time, though, he was. Sobhraj is now serving a life sentence—thanks in part to evidence provided by Knippenberg. Complicated as it may seem, Warlow thinks The Serpent is pretty simple in the end: it’s “a story about a good guy over many years diligently and honestly working his way towards some restoration of justice.”
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