A Snake in the Asian Grass
Serpentine By Thomas Thompson Doubleday
BAD CRIMINALS ARE a dime a dozen. They're the ones that police reporters write up in the next day's paper, tucked in among the marriage announcements. Good criminals, on the other hand, are a lot harder to track down. You've got to devote a lot of time, energy and money to your search. If you're lucky enough to find one, however, they make for very good copy. And when a really good writer goes after a really good criminal, the results can't be all bad.
Serpentine. Tommy Thompson's new book about a daring criminal chameleon who stalks Asia in search of unsuspecting tourists, is the product of such a wedding. Thompson, best known for Blood and Money--a searching dissection of the bizarre sequence of Hill murders in Houston-does two things very well. He picks great subjects. You keep having to remind yourself that Serpentine is, after all, non-fiction. In fact, after reading a couple of Thompson's quasi-novels, one might accuse him of choosing topics that any garden-variety journalist could fish a bestseller out of. Grisly, morbid, sick, perverse, psychotic--all this, and true.
More importantly, Thompson isn't lazy; he doesn't let himself fall back on his story's inherent interest and flow. Like James Clavell, he displays a wonderful "can't put it down" sense of narrative. In a nervous, frustrating tale, Thompson is at ease, carefully building the tension and leaving you asking for more. His colorful prose defines the story, and draws it along smoothly. A less talented writer might have been lost along the dizzying itinerary or among the endless crowds of characters. But Thompson is at his best, drawing brief but dffective character sketches and artfully blending his actors into his gripping story.
And what a story it is. Thompson's subject is Charles Sobhraj, alias Charles Gurmukh, alias Charles Gurmukh, alias Alian Passaint, alias Lobo, alias Alain Gauthier. Conceived in Vietnam and raised in France, the young Charles is shuttled back and forth from his native Asia to the French countryside. As a youngster, he learns the tools of his trade quickly, throwing the blame for his own plots on others and magically convincing those around him to do what he asks. By the age of 24, Sobhraj is a man disowned by both father and nation, befriended only by a lone Frenchman named Felix, who annoyingly returns to save the prison-bound Charles time and time again. This is not a nice young man. "You should have let him stay in prison," Charles' father warns the young Frenchman. "He begged you and you believed him and took pity on him. And now the result of your mercy will be the blood of the innocents. Wherever my son walks, it will fall like the monsoon rain...
Sobhraj files, hikes, and drives all over the world: from the Hinterlands of Katmandu to the baccarat tables of Macao's casinos to the terror of Turkish prisons. "I am a thief," he tells his brother while priming him for the trade, but Sobhrai doesn't do himself justice. Accompanied by two or three of his gang--a strange Pakestanian named Ajay, a marvelous Melanesian named May, an oafish Belgian named Hugey and a 30-year-old Canadian farmer's daughter who throws away her sedate life for the promises of a man she met once in Bangkok--he roams the Asian continent, Sobhraj is more than a simple drug and rob man; he is a conman, hustler and egomaniac. And he is successful:
He had extraordinary power over women. Give Charles a few hours around a girl and even if she were convent-educated and the daughter of a police inspector, she would usually do what Charles asked her to do.
This is also the story of an apartment in Bangkok, and tourists lured there by a pleasant Frenchman, a beacon of polite familiarity in an unfamiliar continent. Thompson describes how one by one, couples and lone tourists fell prey to the magic of Sobhraj. Sobhraj's powers are almost impossible to fathom--as even the author admits--but the naivete of those who fall into his trap is even harder to understand. "Months later," Thompson writers, "an Interpol detective in Paris, would study the case and wonder why in the name of God these poor people didn't figure out what was goin on?" When somebody finally does put the pieces together--the unlikely hero is a sniveling Dutch embassy employee--it is about ten people too late. Sobhraj--who has escaped from prisons and tight situations like a super criminal--proves mortal. Having tred the fine line between sanity and psychosis for the better part of his life, he finally slips into a murderous abyss.
Serpentine moves like a snake on water, slithering from incident to crime, pausing just long enough to consider its prey. Thompson has done extensive research on his subject, and quotes liberally from other people's remembrances, letters and other documents. But he doesn't let the facts obscure the phenomenon. Admittedly Thompson goes overboard with the dramatics at times. He delights in ominous tag lines, affixed to long stretches of narrative. As Charles ponders life in a Dehli jail cell. Thompson writes about his future. He required "a country in which he was neither known nor wanted by police, one in which riches abounded, one whose borders were easy to traverse illegally, one whose residents were generous with attention--and applause." The author concludes Sobhraj's destiny will lead him to the United States.
This is the stuff that sells for seven figures in paperback. But the book's commercial value is an added bonus, not something for "serious readers" to turn up their noses at. Thompsons' latest work is psychobiography, whodunit and courtroom drama tied into one, and fused by the enigmatic Sobhraj. The author says he is now at work on his first novel. One can only hope his imagination yields a subject as gripping as the real world has