He was wound up tight as a violin string. He couldn't sit still. He lit a cigarette, put it out, lit another, put it out, lit another.

"Just got a phone call," he said. "Sold it for the most ever. A million, plus points. Coppola's gonna direct it."

His hands shook. He picked up a glass of water, put it down.

Thomas Thompson and his new book "Serpentine" are flying high.

It is an astonishing book, so astonishing that everyone thinks it's fiction.

But it is true, except for some changed names and invented dialogue. It is the story of Charles Sobhraj, a beautiful and sinister young man who made his living by charming tourists from Paris to Hong Kong, from Bangkok to Katmandu. He wined and dined them, knocked them out with drugs and rifled their rooms.

Then, as the pace picked up, he began to kill them.

"There were at least a dozen," Thompson said. "More like 15."

When the police from six countries finally brought sobhraj down, along with his three women satellites, the best they could do was jail him for seven years on one murder rap. That was a year ago. Sobhraj, a master of escape, casually told Thompson that he'd be coming to America next....

"I first read a little paragraph at the bottom of the page in some newspaper," Thompson said. "Every year i get hundreds of book offers, but I usually find my stories in these little obscure notices. I'd never been to India, and Doubleday was feeling expansive since 'Blood and Money' (his nonfiction best seller about sex and murder in Texas, soon to become five 2-hour movies on TV directed by William Friedkin), so I flew to Delhi and told the taxi driver, 'Take me to the jail.'"

There he met Charles Sobhraj, squatting in the courtyard, heavily manacled, with about 50 guards around him.

"The other prisoners were in rags. Charles wore a Pierre Cardin suit and tinted glasses and a $2,000 gold watch. I hadn't told him who I was, but he knew my name and asked about my two sons and congratulated me for 'Blood and Money' making Number Four on the best-seller list."

He also wanted a huge piece of the action for telling his story.

"He's more charming than Manson, and his women are classier. He looks a little like Alain Delon, the French movie actor, and the reason he was doing so well there in Tihar prison, which is an absolutely appalling hole, is that he kept about 70 carats of rubies and sapphires hidden in his mouth.

Thompson was fascinated, not only with the mesmerizing Charles, but with his victums, and how their lives seemed to draw them to their appointment in Samarra.

"I almost dedicated the book to Thornton Wilder, who is one of my idols, because of 'The Bridge of San Luis Rey,' which also studies the way people's destinies converge."

He found Hindu temple inscription which he quotes in the book: "Coindicence, if traced far enough back, becomes inevitable." It is a theme that has haunted him ever since his days on Life magazine, when he became famous for his piece about a father who murdered his son.

"I even wondered," he said, "how it came to be that I should have read that little notice and found my way to the story. I've taken it about as far as I can go in nonfiction, moving it close to fiction. Some say I've gone too far."

Some readers, indeed, are bothered by the invented dialogue and interior monologues, which all sound rather alike. And there are some exuberant metaphors, like "one ripe fragment of irony remained" and "she was caught up in India's snail tracks of justice." But in the end, the story carries all before it.

Such energy! You wouldn't think he had a staff of researchers. But he did it alone, roaming Asia for two years, climbing halfway up a Himalaya for a two-paragraph description of a monastery at Katmandu, tracing Sobhraj's origins in Saigon, talking to hundreds of people in a dozen languages and argots.

"I only speak three languages myself," he said."English, French and Texan. I was the Life bureau chief in Paris for three years. and I dined out on my French. I sound like LBJ speaking French."

Feeling more than a little obsessed, the 46-year-old Thompson tracked down Sobhraj's women, piecing together their early lives in Seattle and Canada to find out exactly what lured them into the charming psychopath's web deep in Asia. The 563-page book seethes with observed detail.

"I just couldn't trust someone else to go to the library and find out what color Napoleon's eyes were."

He wants to try a novel, just once, but thinks he'll soon be back at nonfiction. Certainly he would seem to have the right formula: Paperback rights are in seven figures, the book with its 100,000 first printing is the main Literary Guild selection this month, beating out Mailer's "The Executioner's Song." And there are the magazine rights and foreign rights....

"I write from eight to noon every morning without fail, that time is holy, and my old dog Tex lies across my feet, and he knows when it's time to stop. And then I go out and play tennis and swim and take meetings with the movie people. But I don't bother with film scripts."

Why should he? A man who writes about "ordinary people caught up in extra-ordinary situations" will never run out of subject. Not that Charles Sobhraj is what you would call an ordinary man.

"He looked about the dining room of the (Bangkok) Sheraton Hotel and he gestured toward a bar. 'I can go over to that bar and sit down and within five minutes strike up a friendship with a tourist,' he said. Then, a day or two of helpful courtesies, perhaps a dinner, a personally guided tour of the floating market or the Temple of Dawn, and -- Charles snapped his fingers -- that person is willing , eager, to buy his gems. ...By the time dessert came to the table, May was reasonably certain that a major millionaire was sitting next to her, his knee suggestively dancing against hers ..." --"Serpentine," by Thomas Thompson, Doubleday