Sunday 28 February 2021

Nerd Church - The Serpent and Herman Knippenberg


(Warning: this post discusses the details of a real-life crime, as such it contains details of murder, drugging, and a serial killer)

This week, I finished watching the eight-part BBC series The Serpent.

Starring Jenna Coleman, Billy Howle, and Tahar Rahim, The Serpent is a drama based on the real story of a serial killer preying on tourists in a variety of countries along the Asian hippie-trail during the 1970s.

It's an excellent series, even though it’s not exactly easy viewing.

'The Serpent and Herman Knippenberg' against a green patterned background

This blogpost is gonna have a few SPOILERS for The Serpent series, OK? 


Don't say I didn't warn you!

Charles Sobhraj is a conman, thief, and serial killer, who lived in Bangkok, amongst other places, in the 1970s.

He was known as The Serpent, as well as The Bikini Killer and The Splitting Killer.

He would drug and rob backpackers and tourists, mostly young Westerners, murdering a number of them. 

His kill count is at least 12 people. His total number of victims is unknown.

One of the most terrifying things about it though? 

No-one seemed to give a sh** that these kids were going missing and/or being found dead.

It took a minor Dutch diplomat named Herman Knippenberg -

a pencil-pusher, essentially, as the series points out, a self-admitted ‘underling’ as he described himself in an interview with ITV’s Loose Women (which you can see on YouTube here)

- who wouldn’t give up.

And by ‘he wouldn’t give up’ I mean He. Wouldn’t. Give. Up.

He was told, repeatedly, to leave it.

He was told by his boss to leave it.

He reported everything to the police - 

the point at which most people would be completely morally vindicated in leaving this

- and was basically told, ‘I dunno, we don’t have the money or resources to deal with this – maybe you can investigate and get back to us?’ he did.

I firmly believe that Charles Sobhraj would never have been caught if it wasn’t for Herman Knippenberg and his refusal to leave a serial killer wandering around the 1970s Asian tourist trail.

(...which a disturbingly large number of people thought it was perfectly fine to do.)

And it really wasn’t without sacrifice – tracking a serial killer, even at a distance, is gonna affect you, as the series shows.

Plus his career seemed to be damaged by this whole thing, because when I say his boss wasn’t happy about him looking into this, I seriously mean it.

I know it wasn’t technically his job to look into this – hence why his boss was pi**ed.

But his boss didn’t want him to look into the missing Dutch kids who sparked this whole thing, either – which, my dude, imho is your job as the Dutch embassy, whether you wanna admit it or not.

But, y’know, maybe I’m naive in thinking that embassies are there to protect their citizens abroad *shrugs*.

I know that there’s an issue with the romanticisation of serial killers – and murderers in general – in the media, and there’s definitely room for the argument that The Serpent perpetuates this in the scenes in which Sobhraj features.

I do think, though, that the balance is kept at a healthy level a lot more than it is in most serial killer dramas.

'The Serpent' trailer

Warning: mild flashing images

Not perfect! Just better than usual.

...Not least in the way we focus on how Marie-Andrée, aka Monique, is drawn into his circle and his crimes, and the way a French tourist named Dominique is held by the couple, repeatedly drugged, and forced to work as their housekeeper.

We also move out to encompass Charles and Marie-Andrée’s neighbours, Nadine and Remi, who are instrumental to helping Knippenberg in his investigations.

We even get insights into Sobhraj’s mother, and his Thai girlfriend (yes, he was going out with her at the same time as he was with Marie-Andrée – serial killers don’t make good boyfriends, kids!)

It’s their desperation we see here – their reactions to the terrifying and murderous world they’ve been dragged into.

Every time we risk getting too caught up in Sobhraj, we pull away and centre the other people affected. Because he ruled and/or ruined so many lives – even those that he did not take.

And the hero of our story is most definitely Herman Knippenberg - the Dutchman who knew that he simply couldn’t leave this alone.

I’ve got a lot of admiration for him – the guy who went above-and-beyond in order to do what he knew was the right thing.

Knippenberg never (at least the way the series shows it, though we all know that dramas are selective at best,) lost sight of the reason he carried on when it would have been so easy to give up – because people were dead, and would continue to die unless Sobhraj was stopped.

And those people were people. And justice needed to be done. And someone needed to stop Sobhraj from taking more lives.

And if the only person willing to serve that justice and protect those potential future victims was the third secretary to the Dutch ambassador, then so be it.

The reason behind the title/serial killer nickname of ‘The Serpent’ is because Sobhraj is a slippery b*****d.

He kept escaping – through fair and foul means – and evading the justice he deserved.

Through diligent research, Knippenberg compiled the evidence that would eventually result in Sobhraj’s conviction for murder in Nepal – in the 00s.

Knippenberg had kept his boxes of photocopies of evidence up-to-date for decades, waiting for the time when they could be used to bring justice for the victims.

He still keeps his files on Sobhraj up-to-date, and I got the impression from that Loose Women interview that if he has the chance to bring peace and justice to some of the unknown victims of Sobhraj, he will do so.

An ordinary 'underling' who did what needed to be done - you've got to have some admiration for a man like that.

Have you seen The Serpent?
Had you heard of Charles Sobhraj before?
Talk to me! 😊💬

You can follow me on Twitter @CeeDoraReads, on Pinterest, and on Dora Reads @ BlogLovin. For more ways to support me, check out the Support Me page

Previous Nerd Church Posts:


  1. I'm glad you called attention to the romanticisation of serial killers that we see in many true crime tv series. This is something that my sister and I discuss frequently. She is majoring in criminology and she hates it when people just jump on the bandwagon of watching true crime shows without educating themselves on the victims in particular. So, kudos to you Cee for bringing this up! Glad to see this show has a better balance.

    1. Like I said, it's not perfect - but it attempts to avoid overly-romanticising Sobhraj, and for the most part succeeds. It does focus on the victims as much as it can - but they clearly also wanted to respect the privacy and wishes of their families, and they mention at the start of every episode that they've changed some of the names of the victims for this reason. Which is only fair.

      There's more of an argument here over Marie-Andree and how much she should be seen as 'villain or victim' so to speak - and again, I think the show does quite a good job of keeping the balance and showing that she was both. (Although that's only my opinion, ofc!)

      Maybe that's where dramas can actually have the advantage over a documentary - there's even more opportunity to control the narrative, though many dramas use that to sensationalise, more than anything.


Comments? I love comments! Talk to me nerdlets!