Across Continents, On the Trail of a Con Man

Book review: Serpentine, by Thomas Thompson

Serpentine is a long book but it doesn’t actually read like one. The writing is detailed and engrossing, pulling a reader in from the start. The story is about Charles Sobrahj, a French national of Vietnamese and Indian parentage born in Saigon. He had a troubled early start and things never much improved, as the book details his early life and family problems and lays out some clear themes that obviously influenced his later actions and crimes.

Sobrahj is described as a serial killer but I don’t think he fits the general, common definition that most people would associate with that label. He’s more of a con artist who had no qualms with killing people who were no longer valuable to him, or whose money and paperwork were of more value to him than their services. A lifetime criminal, he built himself up mostly by stealing gems, cars and identities, until going on a scamming and killing spree throughout Southeast Asia in the 1970s, finally ending in New Delhi in 1976. There he was caught thanks to an older, notorious case of hostage-taking and gem robbery at the Ashoka Hotel, a scene that’s thrillingly, tensely written up in the book.

He has a remarkable ability for conning people, gaining their trust and exploiting it to his own financial benefit. He also benefits from the companionship and feeling of being needed, even if that’s all thanks to his own creation and manipulation, so that’s where his childhood abandonment issues come in. In the last wave of crime in South Asia, Sobrahj and his main associate at this time, Marie-Andreé Leclerc, a lovesick Canadian medical secretary who fell under his spell, drugged and robbed money, valuables, passports, and anything else they could swindle from a string of foreign tourists, enlisting some others along the way to play parts in their schemes.

It’s a feat of investigative journalism, an incredibly impressive one. Thompson’s author bio states that in order to research the book, he flew around the world three times and spent two years in Asia. I was still astounded at how much detail he was able to glean about certain people or events. It’s a remarkable accomplishment, narrative nonfiction at its best. And it’s compellingly written, so for that alone I’d recommend the book especially to those who aren’t usual true crime readers. The serial killer aspect of the tagline is actually a minor element of this story, it’s much more about the world he inhabited and how he bent rules, laws, and people to fit his own idea of what he deserved and others didn’t.

My only gripe is that for all the build-up, the ending was somewhat abrupt. Despite his notoriety, I’d never heard of Sobrahj before, and I couldn’t leave the story where it ended, I wanted to know what became of him and Leclerc. There was so much foreshadowing throughout, always an undercurrent of how evil and morally corrupt this person was, but it often felt like elaborate write-ups of the events and climate around them without much of the aftermath, albeit richly written. It’s very much worth it for that, the story is captivating and it’s impressive that a nearly 600-page book can be sped through and feel like the reading of it was over quickly.

Be prepared for some followup Googling and becoming much more suspicious of anyone you meet while traveling!

The True Story of a Serial Killer’s Reign of Terror from Europe to South Asia
by Thomas Thompson
new ebook edition published December 13, 2016 by Open Road Integrated Media,
originally published 1979

I received a copy of the new ebook edition from the publisher for review.

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