New Zealand Listener

CAUGHT IN THE SERPENT’S TALE

Serial killers have existed throughout history but the term itself dates back only until the mid-1970s, which happens to be when the serial killer I know was operating. Charles Sobhraj is one of those characters whose story seems too far-fetched for real life, so it’s no surprise that it has been frequently fictionalised.

The latest adaptation, The Serpent, is an eight part Netflix/BBC production, starring French actor Tahar Rahim, due to be broadcast in 2020. It follows the extraordinary spate of murders that Sobhraj committed along the so-called “hippie trail” of South and East Asia in the 1970s. And it focuses on the role of New Zealand resident Herman Knippenberg, back then a junior Dutch diplomat in Bangkok, in exposing Sobhraj as a multiple killer.

In countries such as Thailand, Pakistan and Nepal, Sobhraj murdered at least 12 people, most of them young travellers. He stole not just their money but also, frequently, their identities – often leaving the country using the passport of one of his victims.

The Serpent focuses on the role of New Zealand resident Herman Knippenberg in exposing Sobhraj as a multiple killer.

In an era of limited communications and technology, especially in the developing world where Sobhraj operated, his tactics were so effective that he not only eluded capture but sometimes his victims were not even reported dead – because there were records of them travelling after their unidentified corpses were found.

Sobhraj was handsome, charming, multilingual and a homicidal psychopath. I first met him in 1997 in Paris. He’d just been released from jail in India, where he had served a 20-year sentence for kidnapping. In fact, his sentence in India had been considerably shorter, but he had escaped from Delhi’s infamous Tihar Jail – by knocking out the guards with spiked sweets – and intentionally got himself re-arrested to extend his sentence. It meant that by the time he was

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