TUNE IN, DROP OUT, DIE
This tale of a serial killer who preyed on hippies is as much whydunnit as whodunnit, writes Tymon Smith
Charles Sobhraj thrives on his infamy as one of the world’s nastiest serial killers. In the 1970s and ’80s, he murdered 12-24 people in southeast Asia, most of them young Westerners travelling the Asian Hippie Trail in search of escape from the crushing claustrophobia of their homelands.
Sobhraj was the son of a Vietnamese mother and Indian father who divorced when he was a child. He grew up shuttling around the world, experiencing life as a reviled outsider in the European boarding schools he was shipped off to. To him, the hippies’ search for an epiphany in the mystic lands of southeast Asia was a joke, and he treated them with contempt.
Posing as a sophisticated French gem dealer under the alias Alan Gautier, Sobhraj lured youngsters into his orbit with promises of easy money to finance their continued adventures. He had a little help from his beautiful girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc in drugging them, stealing their money, killing them and disposing of their bodies, aided by his devoted accomplice Ajay Chowdhury.
Sobhraj, Leclerc and Chowdhury did this with great success, rousing little suspicion for a number of years in the late ’70s in Thailand. After all, who really cared what happened to spaced-out, antisocial longhairs wandering far from home, determined not to take the road mapped out for them by their hard-working parents and committed capitalist democratic home countries?
Sobhraj’s serial killings were motivated not by a psychological imbalance but rather by a much more terrifying and chillingly rational obsession with easy money and an addiction to pulling the wool over the eyes of easy, starry-eyed targets.
That was, until an ambitious, empathetic Dutch diplomat named Herman Knippenberg, working in the office of the Dutch embassy in Thailand, began to investigate the disappearance of a Dutch couple.
His inquiries sent him down a dark and horrifying maze that would eventually expose the nefariousness of Sobhraj’s trail of murder and deceit.
Knippenberg’s dogged quest for the truth eventually paid off with the arrest of Sobhraj and his accomplices. Though he has managed to play the judicial system several times to his advantage over the past three decades, Sobhraj’s hubris and attraction to fame have often tripped him up and landed him back in jail, where he’s now spent more than 35 years of his life. It was from jail that he recently claimed that he will be released early and plans to make millions selling the rights to his story to Hollywood.
The BBC-produced eight-part miniseries The Serpent tells the story of Sobhraj, and Knippenberg’s pursuit of him. Starring an exceptional, icy and often terrifyingly implacable Tahar Rahim as Sobhraj and a stubbornly righteous Billy Howle as Knippenberg, it’s a glacially paced but increasingly intriguing and scary examination of not only the cold-blooded psychopathy of its subject but also the coldhearted disdain of increasingly conservative establishments towards his chosen prey.
It’s lushly realised and provides a humidity-drenched and evocative recreation of 1970s southeast Asia complete with the brown-shaded costumes and décor we’d prefer to forget as once being the height of fashionable sensibilities.
It uses a well-trodden narrative set-up, but still manages to quietly surprise and engage thanks to a nifty jumping back and forth in time and a solid cast who offer strong and layered performances, playing characters often caught in a web of deceit that exposes the stark divisions between who they think they are and who they’ve actually become.
Ably supported by Jenna Coleman as Leclerc and Amesh Edireweera as Chowdhury, Rahim gives a terrific performance in which all the danger and menace of his character is revealed in subtle changes of his eyes and small gestures.
A small part whodunnit to a larger part whydunit that takes place against the backdrop of a globetrotting series of wellrecreated period settings, The Serpent is like some of the nastier members of the species — slow to unravel, beautifully fascinating to watch and short, sharp and lethal in the delivery of its increasingly tense dramatic punches.