When I first met Charles Sobhraj, it was in Kathmandu District Court in 2003. I was impressed that even after three weeks in the city’s filthy, overcrowded Hanuman Dhoka jail, he wore spotless jeans, a checked shirt, and a light-tan jacket.

Despite his reputation for escaping prisons—which gained him his slithery nickname—the security in the courtroom was lax. So I struck up a conversation with him, with only a young Nepalese policeman sitting between us. Sobhraj’s manner was calm and pleasant, and he was quietly confident that he would win his case and head back to Paris soon. “They have nothing on me,” he told me. “I’ve done the housework.” He asked me for my business card. He was disarmingly suave.

Two weeks earlier, a journalist for The Himalayan Times had recognized Sobhraj playing baccarat in the Casino Royale at the five-star Hotel Yak & Yeti. Sobhraj was arrested soon after and charged with the murder of two backpackers in the city in 1975. It was part of an alleged decade-long killing spree that was said to have claimed the lives of more than 20 Western backpackers traveling along the “hippie trail,” the overland route that linked Europe with Southeast Asia via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Malaysia, and Thailand.

Sobhraj in 1986, as he allows himself to be recaptured, three weeks after his escape from the Tihar jail.

During those years, Sobhraj was the trail’s bogeyman. A handsome, debonair character, he often pretended to be a gem dealer and would worm his way into the confidence of travelers looking for a friendly face in a strange new environment. He allegedly drugged and robbed dozens of backpackers, and on occasion murdered them, too. With an ever changing array of besotted accomplices, he is thought to have strangled, burned, or beaten his victims to death before stealing their passports, which he used to create a string of aliases.

Sobhraj was born in Saigon, the son of an absent Indian father and a Vietnamese mother. His stepfather was a French Army lieutenant, and he spent his first 15 years bouncing back and forth between Vietnam and France. He was a charmer and fluent in several languages, and he began committing scams and burglaries in Paris. He was eventually forced to flee France and traveled to India, where he was arrested for armed robbery, but he managed to escape again and fled to Kabul. It was here that he began to rob travelers on the hippie trail along with his wife at the time, Chantal Compagnon.

He is thought to have strangled, burned, or beaten his victims to death.

Sobhraj seemed to follow a regular pattern of crime, capture, and escape. In that pre-Internet age, he moved nimbly between countries and identities whenever the heat got too much. But he didn’t hide. My mother, who lived in Bangkok in the 1970s, actually knew him there as the gem dealer “Alain Gautier,” a man who mingled with the expat community quite openly. It was also in Thailand that he was linked to the murder of two young women who had been found drowned. Their deaths would later earn Sobhraj the nickname the “Bikini Killer.”

But eventually the law caught up with him—in New Delhi in 1976. In one of his most audacious thefts, he attempted to drug a group of 60 visiting French engineering students by giving them sleeping pills that he said were antibiotics that would counteract the dire effects of the local water. However, he overdid the dosage, and the students started to slump over one by one as he went down the table dispensing the pills. He was overpowered by those he had yet to drug and, after a high-profile trial, was sentenced to 12 years in the notorious Tihar jail complex for robbery.

In Tihar, Sobhraj began to reach extreme levels of notoriety. He systematically bribed the prison guards in order to live a life of luxury behind bars. He held court in the prison, giving interviews to Western journalists including Richard Neville, whose 1979 book, The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj, became an international best-seller. Although Sobhraj admitted to some murders in the book, he later recanted the confessions, saying his need for money had overcome him.

Managing the media in 1997.

In 1986, he committed an audacious trick that made him a folk hero in India. Facing extradition to Thailand and a possible death sentence once his time in Tihar was over, he threw a birthday party in his prison cell, invited his guards, gave them drugged sweets, and then simply walked out. But rather than go to ground, he traveled to the tourist area of Goa, where he was promptly re-arrested while sipping a beer in a restaurant. His sentence was extended by 10 years, which meant he couldn’t be extradited to Thailand, and when he was eventually released from Tihar, in 1997, the statute of limitations on his alleged Thai crimes had run out. A statue of Sobhraj now sits in the Goan restaurant where he was recaptured, which Sobhraj is inordinately proud of.

Sobhraj returned to France and stoked the fires of his myth, charging journalists for interviews and photographs and allegedly selling the film rights to his life for millions of dollars. A whole industry grew up around him, with the result that he enjoyed a reputation more suited to a movie star than to a thief, con man, and serial killer.

When he was caught in Nepal in 2003—one of the few countries where the statute of limitations on his alleged crimes had not run out—he continued to milk his infamy, keeping himself in the headlines by hiring the controversial lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre to defend him; her other clients included jihadists, Holocaust deniers, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. (She is married to Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as “Carlos the Jackal.”)

A whole industry grew up around him, so that he enjoyed a reputation more suited to a movie star than to a thief, con man, and serial killer.

Even when Coutant-Peyre failed to set him free, the myth of Sobhraj kept growing. A Bollywood film—Main aur Charles (Me and Charles)—was made about him in 2015. In 2021, the BBC and Netflix released a hugely popular eight-part limited series based on his life, which was entitled, not surprisingly, The Serpent. Such is the allure of his story that after he underwent heart surgery in prison, in 2017, the Nepalese surgeon who operated on him wrote a book entitled Charles Sobhraj: Inside the Heart of the Bikini Killer, which included such lines as “For a moment I held in my hand the heart of a heartless killer.”

A scene from the BBC/Netflix series The Serpent, with Tahar Rahim as Charles Sobhraj and Jenna Coleman as his accomplice, Marie-Andrée Leclerc.

Hence the raised eyebrows when Sobhraj returned to Paris at the end of last year at the age of 78, and the fuss when his autobiography, Moi, le Serpent, was released earlier this month. Co-written with the filmmaker Jean-Charles Deniau, it muddies Sobhraj’s story even more, claiming that he had traveled to Nepal in 2003 because he was involved in a plot of international subterfuge involving the C.I.A., Pakistan, a terrorist prisoner in the Kathmandu jail, and “red mercury,” a fabled but fictional substance, supposedly connected with the making of nuclear weapons.

Indeed, Sobhraj’s greatest talent is to create as much mystery and inconsistency as he can around his story, feeding differing narratives to the journalists he is always ready to meet, and slithering between the half-truths. All the better to remain the shape-shifting center of attention.

With the publication of his autobiography and the release next month of yet another documentary about him, Sobhraj is back where he wants to be: in the limelight. As of this writing he has appeared on two French talk shows, his redoubtable lawyer in tow, as if he were just another author or actor publicizing his latest book or movie. He is showing his age, but he is not showing much remorse. Prison does not seem to scare Sobhraj. His biggest fear appears to be anonymity.

Malika Browne is a London-based writer