It’s a Secret: My Time with Charles Sobhraj, the Bikini Killer
I often speculated that the Bikini Killings were a twisted, homoerotic death ritual triggered by amphetamine psychosis. I wanted to suggest this to the Bombay police, but since I was on speed myself, I decided that wasn't the best idea.
Collage by Matthew Leifheit
One night in the winter of 1983, shortly before I left for Bangkok to work on a movie, a friend told me about a serial murderer known as the "Bikini Killer," a handsome, charismatic occasional gem thief named Charles Sobhraj who had operated out of Thailand in the early 1970s. My friend had known a Formentera couple, smuggling heroin in relays from South Asia, who had been separately lured to their deaths. They were two of many Western tourists Sobhraj had snuffed out on the so-called Hippie Trail. This path stretched from Europe through southern Asia, trekked by Western dropouts as they smoked grass and connected with the locals. Sobhraj would fleece these spiritually thirsty wanderers of any money they had, contemptuous of what he considered their loose morals.
Production delays in Bangkok left me to my own devices for several weeks. It was a disorienting, smelly, traffic-crazy, scary city full of begging monks, teenage gangs, motorcycles, temples, murderous pimps, terrifying prostitutes, sleaze bars, strip joints, street vendors, colonies of homeless people, and mind-boggling poverty. After discovering that Captagon, a powerful amphetamine, was sold over the counter, I sat at my rented manual typewriter for 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, churning out poems, journal entries, stories, and letters to friends. The drug helped the writing along. After a speed binge I knocked myself out with Mekhong, a virulent whiskey said to contain 10 percent formaldehyde and rumored to cause brain damage.
At dinner parties with British and French expats who'd lived in Thailand since the Tet Offensive, I picked up more rumors about Sobhraj. He spoke seven languages. He'd escaped from prisons in five countries. He had passed himself off as an Israeli scholar, a Lebanese textile merchant, and a thousand other things while trawling southern Asia for tourist victims as a drug-and-rob man. People he befriended over drinks woke up hours later in hotel rooms or moving trains, minus their passports, cash, cameras, and other valuables.
In Bangkok, things had taken a grim turn. Sobhraj had made himself an object of passion to a Canadian medical secretary he met in Rhodes, Greece—a woman named Marie-Andrée Leclerc, who was vacationing with her fiancé. Leclerc quit her job, dumped her fiancé, and flew to Bangkok to join Sobhraj. Upon her arrival, he ordered her to pose as his secretary or his wife, as occasion demanded. Sobhraj rarely fucked her, much to her chagrin, and only when her common sense threatened to overpower her florid romantic fantasies.
They traveled up and down the countryside, drugging tourists, taking them in a semi-comatose condition to a spare apartment Sobhraj rented. He convinced them that the local doctors were dangerous quacks and that his wife, a registered nurse, would soon have them in the pink of health. Sometimes he kept them sick for weeks, Leclerc administering a "medicinal drink" consisting of laxatives, ipecac, and Quaaludes, rendering them incontinent, nauseated, lethargic, and confused, while Sobhraj doctored their passports and used them to cross borders, spend their cash, and fence their valuables.
In 1975, he met an Indian boy named Ajay Chowdhury in a park. Chowdhury moved in with Leclerc and Sobhraj, and the two men commenced murdering certain "guests." The "Bikini Killings" were especially gruesome, unlike any of Sobhraj's previous crimes. Victims were drugged, driven to remote areas, then clubbed with boards, doused with gasoline and burned alive, stabbed repeatedly before their throats were slit, or half-strangled and dragged, still breathing, into the sea.
Sobhraj had killed people before, with accidental overdoses. But the Bikini Killings were different. They were carefully planned and uncharacteristically inelegant. They occurred over a strangely compressed period between 1975 and 1976, like a fit of rage that lasted several months and then mysteriously stopped. Sobhraj and Chowdhury slaughtered people in Thailand, India, Nepal, and Malaysia. It isn't known how many: at least eight, including two incineration homicides in Kathmandu and a forcible bathtub drowning in Kolkata.
Sobhraj was finally arrested in 1976 in New Delhi, after drugging a group of French engineering students at a banquet in the Hotel Vikram. He tricked them into taking "anti-dysentery capsules," which many swallowed on the spot, becoming violently sick minutes later. The hotel desk clerk, alarmed by 20 or more people vomiting all over the dining room, called the police. Entirely by chance, the officer who showed up at the Vikram was the only policeman in India who could reliably identify Sobhraj, from the scar of an appendectomy performed years earlier in a prison hospital.
Tried in New Delhi for a long menu of crimes, including murder, Sobhraj was convicted only on smaller charges—enough, it was assumed, to ensure his removal from society for many years. In Bangkok, sleepless from speed, I began to suspect that Sobhraj wasn't really incarcerated in an Indian prison as the papers reported. I was paranoid enough to think that since I was thinking of him, he was likewise thinking of me. I dreamed of him in the rare hours that I slept, picturing his lithe, lethal figure in a black body stockings, crawling inside air ducts and ventilation shafts in my building, like Irma Vep.
Charles Sobhraj and Marie-Andrée Leclerc in 1986. Photo by REX USA
In 1986, after ten years in prison, Sobhraj broke out of New Delhi's Tihar Jail, helped by fellow inmates and a gang he'd assembled on the outside. He escaped by drugging an entire guardhouse with a festive gift of doped fruit, pastries, and a birthday cake. India, which had no extradition treaty with Thailand when Sobhraj was arrested in 1976, had agreed to honor a special extradition order after he'd served his time in India—a non-renewable order valid for 20 years.
Thailand had evidence of six first-degree murders. The Bikini Killings had ruined the tourist industry for several seasons, and Sobhraj had made fools of the Bangkok police. It was widely believed that if he were extradited he'd be shot getting off the plane.
He fled from Delhi to Goa. He buzzed around Goa on a pink motorcycle, in a series of absurd disguises. Eventually, he was seized in O'Coqueiro restaurant, while using the telephone. The whole purpose of the escape had been to get arrested and be given more prison time for escaping—just enough to exceed the Thai extradition order's expiration date.
After years of sporadic interest in Sobhraj, I wanted to meet him. So in 1996 I proposed an article about him to Spin. I didn't particularly want to write an article, especially not for a glorified version of Tiger Beat, but they were willing to pay, so I went.
I first contacted Richard Neville, who had spent a lot of time with Sobhraj when he was on trial in New Delhi. Neville had written a book, The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, and now lived in a remote part of Australia. He still had nightmares about Sobhraj. "You should go and satisfy your obscene curiosity," he told me, "and then get as far away from that person as possible—and never, ever have anything to do with him again."
When I arrived in New Delhi, Sobhraj's ten-year sentence for the jailbreak was about to expire, along with the extradition order. I moved into a cheap hotel owned by a friend of a friend. I often hung out at the Press Club of India in Connaught Place, a favorite dive of journalists from all over the country. The club resembled the lobby of a Bowery flophouse circa 1960. Plates of Spanish peanuts fried in chilies, the only edible item on the menu, came free with the drinks. Lining the walls were shrine-like portraits of journalists who, after leaving the Press Club dead drunk, had been run over in traffic.
My new colleagues were full of lurid Sobhraj anecdotes—tales of his friendships with jailed politicians and industrialists, of fabulous sums he'd been offered for movie rights to his story. A Hindustan Times correspondent assured me I'd never get in to see him. Sobhraj had been quarantined from the press, and the lavish privileges he'd once enjoyed in Tihar Jail had been cut off when the new warden took over.
The new warden was Kiran Bedi, a legend of Indian law enforcement. A former tennis champion, she became the first Indian policewoman. She was an outspoken feminist and, paradoxically, an avid supporter of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party. Fanatically incorruptible in a richly corrupt police force, she had been given numerous "punishment postings" to discourage her, but she applied such literal-minded zeal to her jobs—ordering state ministers' illegally parked cars towed away, for example—that she became a national hero her bosses couldn't get rid of. Before Bedi's arrival, Tihar had been known as the worst prison in India, which is saying something. Bedi flipped her penalty assignment into another PR triumph, transforming Tihar into a rehabilitative ashram, introducing an inflexible regimen of morning meditation, vocational training, and yoga classes.
I sat for hours one morning in the prison administration hall, near a vitrine of confiscated weapons. Listless soldiers passed through, yawning and scratching their balls. An excited group of ladies arrived, some in pantsuits, some in saris, surrounding a short figure in blinding-white plus fours, with a butch haircut and a bunched fist of a face. This was Bedi. On advice from friends at the Press Club, I told her I wanted to write a profile of her for a New York magazine. It took only moments in her presence to sense the immensity of both her ego and her shrewdness.
I was welcome to spend time at the prison, she said. But if I planned on speaking to Sobhraj, I could forget about it. She would endanger her job if she let the press talk to him. Whether or not that was true, I felt certain she intended to be the only celebrity on the premises. I asked how Sobhraj was.
"Charles has changed!" she declared in the birdlike, pattering accent of Indian English. "Through meditation! He will work with Mother Teresa when he is released! No one can see him now—he is rehabilitated!" In the next breath, she suggested I remain in India for several months. I could live very nicely there, she said, if I agreed to ghostwrite her autobiography. This seemed bizarre.
Before I could breathe, I was hustled outside and packed into a bulbous automobile that sped along the inside perimeter wall enclosing the four separate jails of Tihar, an enormous complex with many open spaces, resembling a little city. We arrived at a reviewing stand, where I was ushered to the end of a row of dignitaries in formal dress. Below us, 2,000 prisoners sat in the lotus position, many festooned with smeary colored powder. I had no idea what I was doing there, in torn jeans and a Marc Bolan T-shirt. Bedi's speech was a celebration of Holi, a Hindu religious festival encouraging love, forgiveness, and laughter. And smeary colored powder.
After the ceremony we returned to the office. Bedi announced she was leaving for a conference in Europe the next day for several weeks. Eager for me, her new biographer, to get the full effect of the Tihar ashram, she scribbled a laissez-passer to all four jails on some scrap paper. I was in. Sort of.
Every morning for three weeks, I inched toward Tihar Jail in a cab edging through unexcitable crowds and confused traffic, skirting elephants and ashen, starving cows. Everything shimmered in the appalling heat. We passed the Red Fort, the air greasy with yellow smog and the black smoke of gasoline fires. Beggars squatted in the marshes beside the road, candidly shitting as they watched the traffic.
My laissez-passer was inspected every morning—with the same doubtful scrutiny—in a cavernous security buffer between two immense iron gates. Each day, the ranking officer assigned me a minder for the day, and I tried to bend things in favor of the youngest guards, who were the most relaxed and permissive, often abandoning me while they ambled off to smoke and chat with friends.
They showed me anything in Tihar I cared to see—vegetable gardens; yoga classes; computer classes; shrines to Shiva and Vishnu covered in daffodils and hibiscus; dormitory cells carpeted in prayer mats; loose circles of chattering women bent over looms; a bakery full of barefoot men of all ages, in diaper-like shorts, shoveling dough into industrial ovens. I met Nigerians accused of drug trafficking; Kashmiris accused of terror bombings; Australians accused of manslaughter; accused people who had languished in prison for years, still waiting for a trial date—Indian "undertrials" often serve a full term for the crimes they're charged with before they're even tried, and if they're acquitted they get no compensation for false imprisonment.
I saw everything but Sobhraj. Nobody could tell me where he was. But one afternoon, after three weeks of daylong visits, I got lucky: I had a toothache. My minder took me to the prison dentist, in a little wooden house with 30 or so men lined up outside, waiting for typhoid vaccinations.
My minder distracted himself talking to a nurse on the veranda while she stabbed the same needle into one arm after another. I asked the men in the queue whether anyone could take a message to Sobhraj, and a Nigerian wearing a glowing beaded necklace took my notebook and sprinted off, returning after my dentist's appointment. My face was numb with Novocain as he slipped a folded paper into the pocket of my orange kurti.
I opened it hours later, as the young warden of Prison 3 brought me back to my hotel on his motorcycle. Sobhraj had written the name and phone number of his lawyer with instructions to call him that evening. On the phone, I was told to meet the lawyer at exactly nine the next morning, at his office in the Tis Hazari courthouse.
The Tis Harazi courthouse was a thing of wonder, sprung from the brow of William S. Burroughs. A Leviathan in maroon stucco, with an ocean of litigants, beggars, water sellers, and various weird forms of humanity surging outside. At one end of the building an overturned bus, charred inside and out, housed a large family of vicious monkeys, excitedly ripping excelsior out of the split seats, shrieking and lunging and hurling feces at passersby. A shallow ravine separated the courthouse grounds from a labyrinthine mesa of squat cement bunkers that served as lawyers' offices.
The lawyer was a boneless-looking man of unguessable age, with dusky skin and Aryan features. He told me to leave my camera behind. We walked over to the court, through the crowds, and up some stairs to a dim, boxy courtroom.
I recognized Sobhraj in a queue of plaintiffs, one by one approaching the bench of a bilious Sikh judge in a bright yellow turban who thoughtfully swigged from a bottle of Coca-Cola. The lawyer introduced us.
Sobhraj being led to Tihar Jail in New Delhi in April 1977. Photo by REX USA
Sobhraj was shorter than I expected. He had a sporty beret tilted on his salt-and-pepper hair. A white shirt with blue pinstripes, dark blue trousers, Nike sneakers. Slight, though whatever weight he put on obviously went straight to his ass. He wore rimless glasses that made his eyes enormous and damp-looking, the eyes of some blubbery undersea mammal. His face suggested a somewhat crumbling boulevard actor formerly noted for his beauty. It passed through a morphology of "friendly" expressions.
I avoided his eyes and stared into his mouth. Behind his fleshy lips, he had wildly irregular, jagged bottom teeth, vaguely suggesting the maw of a predatory amphibian. I decided I was reading too much into his mouth and focused on his nose, which was more pleasantly formed.
He was waiting to plead his side of some trivial litigation of a type he was always initiating, mainly to get out of jail for a day and make a splash in the local papers. "You need to wait outside" were the first words he said to me. "The lawyer will show you." He walked me to a spot under a high rectangular window in the courthouse facade.
Half an hour later, Sobhraj's face appeared in the window, framed against an unlighted holding cell. Before I could say anything, he peppered me with questions about myself: who was I, where did I come from, where did I go to university, what sort of books did I write, where did I live, how long would I be in India, a virtual Niagara of ferreting questions about my political attitudes, my religion if any, my favorite music, my sexual practices. I lied about everything.
"Where are you staying in New Delhi?" he asked me. I mumbled something about the Oberoi Hotel. "A-ha," Sobhraj snapped. "The lawyer told me you called him from a hotel in Channa Market."
"That's true, but I'm moving to the Oberoi. Maybe tonight!" I said emphatically. I was suddenly striken with the thought of one of Sobhraj's minions, of which there were always many on the outside, paying me a surprise visit and involving me in some innocent-sounding scheme that would land me in jail without any laissez-passer.
Out of nowhere: "Maybe you could work with me writing my life story for the movies." Something that felt the size of a peach pit suddenly clogged my throat as I told him I'd only be in India for a few weeks. "I mean later. After I am out. You can come back."
I felt relieved when an irritating, gawky journalist cantered up to the window and interrupted, even though I was bribing Sobhraj's guards every 15 minutes for the privilege of talking to him.
A bit later, Sobhraj emerged from the lockup, manacled by his wrists and ankles and chained to a soldier lurching behind him. He had some other business at the distant end of the courthouse. I was permitted to walk beside him, or rather, he told me to, without meeting any objection from his guards. We walked inside a ring of army personnel, with submachine guns pointed at both of us. Other prisoners with court business simply walked hand in hand with their unarmed escorts, but Sobhraj was special. He was a serial killer, and a major celebrity. People rushed through the cordon sanitaire to beg for his autograph.
"Now," I asked him as we walked, "before Kiran Bedi took over the prison, people said you were really in charge of the place."
"Did she tell you I'm writing a book?" he snapped. "About her?"
"She mentioned something. I don't remember exactly."
"I am a writer. Like you. In jail there is not much to do. Reading, writing. I like very much Friedrich Nietzsche."
"Oh, yes. The Superman. Zarathustra."
"Yes, exactly. I have the philosophy of the Superman. He is like me, with no use for bourgeois morality." Sobhraj bent down, clanking his chains, to pull up a pant leg. "This is how I ran the prison. Do you know about those little micro-recorders? I would tape them to myself here, you see. And under my sleeves. I got the guards talking about taking bribes, bringing prostitutes into the jail."
He showed me some papers scrunched in a plasticine wallet he'd been carrying in his shirt pocket.
"These are papers for a Mercedes I will turn in here," he said, pointing at the open door of the office. "It applies against my bail. When I leave Tihar, I have to give them some money."
"By leave, you mean—"
"When I leave to work with Mother Teresa." Yikes.
"I need to ask you something, Charles," I repeated, as firmly as I could. In the course of our conversation (of which this is only the gist) I noted that Sobhraj had made a sort of mental collage of everything I'd told him earlier about myself, and was feeding parts of it back to me, with various plausible modifications, as revelations about himself. It's a standard technique of sociopaths.
"Would you like my autograph as well?"
"No, I'd like to know why you murdered all those people in Thailand."
Far from the shattering effect I had hoped for, Sobhraj smiled at some private joke and began cleaning his glasses with his shirt.
"I never murdered anybody."
"What about Stephanie Parry? Vitali Hakim? Those kids in Nepal?" On a Christmas holiday vacation, Sobhraj and Chowdhury, Leclerc in tow, had found time to incinerate two backpackers in Kathmandu.
"Now you are speaking about drug addicts."
"You didn't kill them?"
"They may have been..." He searched for the proper word. "Uh, liquidated by a syndicate, for dealing heroin."
"Are you the syndicate?"
"I am one person. A syndicate has many people."
"But you already told Richard Neville that you killed those people. I don't want to offend you, but I want to know why you killed them."
"I just told you." I felt time slipping away. I didn't consider it prudent to see this person again, and as soon as he concluded this murky business with the Mercedes they would take him back to Tihar.
"Well, I can tell you about one," he said after a thoughtful silence. He leaned into me confidentially. One of the guards coughed, reminding us of his presence. "The girl from California. She was drunk, and Ajay brought her to Kanit House." We knew about her, you see. We knew she was involved with heroin. He proceeded to recount how he killed Teresa Knowlton, a young woman who had definitely not been involved with heroin and planned to become a Buddhist nun, more or less exactly the way he'd told the story to Richard Neville a quarter century earlier. Her corpse was the first to be found, in a bikini, floating off Pattaya Beach. Hence the Bikini Killer.
When he got to the end of a long, ugly story I said: "I'm not really interested in how you killed her. What I'd like to know is why. Even if you were working for some Hong Kong syndicate there must be some reason why you and not someone else would do this."
A guard indicated that Sobhraj could enter the office. He stood up with a great clanking of chains. He shuffled a few steps and peered over his shoulder.
"It's a secret," he said, his face suddenly dead serious. Then he disappeared, waving the title for the Mercedes, Iago to the very end.
Sobhraj reading about himself in a French newspaper upon his arrival in Paris in April 1997. Photo by REX USA
I thought Sobhraj and Chowdhury must have taken a lot of speed. I often speculated that the Bikini Killings were a twisted, homoerotic death ritual triggered by amphetamine psychosis. I wanted to suggest this to the Bombay police, but since I was on speed myself, I had the paranoid thought that if I brought it up they might give me a drug test, right there in their office.
I went to meet Madhukar Zende, an impressively solid, strangely feline police commissioner, who presented me with bales of handwritten depositions by Sobhraj's cohorts, scrawled in ballpoint or pencil, confessing to multiple larcenies in Peshawar and Karachi and Kashmir, carried out in a frenzy of bewilderingly rapid transit. Zende had arrested Sobhraj twice: once in 1971 on Zende's 42nd birthday, after a jewel heist at the Ashoka Hotel in New Delhi, and once in 1986, after the Tihar prison break.
He spoke about Sobhraj with ironic affection, thumbing his D'Artagnan mustache as he recalled the early 1970s, when Sobhraj kept a flat on Malabar Hill and made himself popular in Bollywood by offering stolen Pontiacs and Alfa Romeos at a thrilling discount. For dicier scams, he recruited stooges in juice bars and fleapit hostels on Ormiston Road, doing his drug-and-rob thing to wealthy tourists at the Taj or the Oberoi near the India Gate to keep in practice.
"He was interested in women and money," Zende sighed. "He left a trail of broken hearts wherever he went." In 1971, Sobhraj had been waiting for an international call at the O'Coqueiro restaurant in Goa when Zende, disguised as a tourist, busted him.
I sat near the spot where Sobhraj had been seized, as tiny, iridescent lizards scrambled up and down the sage-green walls of the O'Coqueiro. It was off-season in Goa. Waiters stood around aimlessly in the dining room like gigolos in an empty dance hall.
On the shadowy veranda, Gines Viegas, the proprietor, plied me with rum and cokes while he drawled out tales of his years as a travel agent in Africa and South America. He was an irritable tortoise, but now and then he inserted fresh details of the weeks when Sobhraj showed up every night to use the phone at the restaurant.
"He was calling his mother in France," Viegas told me. "He looked different every time, wearing wigs, his face all made up. He made his nose bigger with putty. When Zende was here on his famous stakeout, he wore Bermuda shorts and tourist shirts. I knew he was a cop right away."
Madhukar Zende is dead now. So is Gines Viegas. Charles Sobhraj is still alive.
The new owners of O'Coqueiro have installed a statue of Sobhraj at the table where he ate dinner the night of his arrest. As for Kiran Bedi, she lost her job—a victim of hubris and, not unpredictably, of Sobhraj. This tough woman softened under a tsunami of the Serpent's flattery. She so fervently believed in his rehabilitation that she allowed a French film crew into Tihar to document it, giving her superiors an excuse to fire her.
Contrary to what Zende said, I didn't believe Sobhraj was ever interested in women or money. Despite all the bling he displayed to impress his marks, his pleasure in life was putting one over on them. He never got more than a few hundred dollars from the backpackers who turned up at Kanit House and later turned up dead. Whenever he reaped a windfall from his trade, he instantly flew off to Corfu or Hong Kong and blew it all in a casino. The women in his life have always been props for a criminal enterprise, or publicity. If Charles was ever a fabulous stud, nobody's ever said so. And they would have.
Sobhraj being escorted by Nepalese police after a hearing at a district court in Bhaktapur on June 12, 2014. Photo by AFP/Prakash Mathema/Getty Images
I don't know why the Bikini Killings happened. But in that part of the world, such events used to be called "amok"—a "triggered rampage," first observed by anthropologists in Malaya in the late 1800s. More often, now, they happen here in the United States. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold ran amok at Columbine. Adam Lanza ran amok in Newtown, Connecticut. The trigger event in Bangkok—I feel fairly certain of this—was Ajay Chowdhury. The murders composed a very brief chapter in Sobhraj's stupendously variegated lifetime of crime: a prolonged explosion of "overkill" by a svelte, unruffable con artist who prided himself on self-control. The killings started when Chowdhury came into the picture and stopped when he left it.
To the dismay of many people who tried to prevent it, Sobhraj was released from prison a year after I met him. As a French national with a criminal record, he was hastily booted out of India. He settled in Paris, where he was allegedly paid $5 million for his life story and began giving interviews for $6,000 a pop, at his favorite café on the Champs-Élysées.
But that isn't quite the end. In 2003, he turned up in Nepal—the only country in the world where he was still a wanted man. (Thailand has a statute of limitations on all crimes, including murder.) He believed—or so it's said—that the evidence against him had long crumbled to dust. I'm not so sure he believed that. He roared around Kathmandu on a motorcycle, as he had in Goa, making himself conspicuous. The Nepalese had carefully preserved dated receipts for a rental car and blood evidence found in the trunk and proceeded to arrest him, fittingly enough, in a casino.
As I write this, I just watched a YouTube video that shows Sobhraj losing his final appeal on a murder conviction in Kathmandu. So much time separates the Bikini Killings from the present that the way he will finish up no longer illustrates the tendency of certain individuals to flog their pathology to the point of self-immolation. What it illustrates is the ultimate futility of everything in the face of the aging process. Sobhraj has grown old. If he hasn't grown tired of himself by now, he's certainly grown stupid. If you look at his story for as long as I have—the endless trail of mischief and mayhem that only led back where it started, a prison cell; the money robbed and instantly gambled away; the pointless perpetual motion across countries and continents—you will see that Sobhraj was always ridiculous. The first impression I had of him face to face was one of aggressive, implacable ridiculousness.
His victims had been people then my own age, no doubt wandering the earth in the same mental fog I carried around in my 20s, in exactly the same years. The story called to me long ago, no doubt, because I wondered whether, in their place, I could have been conned to death by Sobhraj too: In photographs from that time, he looked like a person I would've slept with in the 70s—like several different people, in fact, whom I did sleep with in the 70s. There was no way to answer the question by meeting him. He no longer looked like anyone I would ever sleep with, and I knew in advance what he'd done. A criminal quite like Sobhraj would be impossible now: Interpol is computerized; a person can't hop on and off airplanes and cross frontiers with nothing but fast talk, sexy smiles, and crappily forged passports; every jewelry store in the world has surveillance cameras, and soon every street in the world will have them too.
But I may have had the whole thing wrong from the start, anyway. For years I imagined Sobhraj enticing credulous, not-very-bright stoners into his web of death through sexual charm and superior cunning. But what if the people he killed didn't buy his act any more than I did, regardless of how attractive he was at the time, and even without knowing anything about him? What if, instead of an image of perfection, they saw an obviously Asian, hilariously sleazy loser, like a ponce in a business suit shilling in front of a strip joint, absurdly pretending to be French, or Dutch, or vaguely European, "like them." What if they considered him amusingly pathetic but possibly useful? Most had been "lured" not by his sex appeal, or his oily patter, but by the prospect of getting expensive gemstones on the cheap. It's just possible that his victims imagined they were conning him and found him as ridiculous as I did. And maybe they believed—patronizingly, with liberal, enlightened indulgence—that a ridiculous person is also a harmless one.