A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding – a dramatic account of Litvinenko’s murder | Books | The Guardian

A Very Expensive Poison by Luke Harding – a dramatic account of Litvinenko’s murder | Books | The Guardian

Alexander Litvinenko a few days before his death.

Alexander Litvinenko a few days before his death. Photograph: Natasja Weitsz/Getty Images

On 23 November 2006 a man died in a London hospital. He had been ill for just over three weeks. He had deteriorated catastrophically and, for most of the length of his illness, mysteriously, but by the time of his death the basic facts were clear. He was a former officer of the Russian secret police, and he had been poisoned with a radioactive substance. One other thing was clear to him and to those closest to him: the murder had been ordered, or at least approved, by President Vladimir Putin himself. To much of the rest of the world, that claim seemed outlandish. Over the years, however, the world’s understanding of Putin grew, and so, gradually, did the understanding that a murder like this could have – and probably would have – been commissioned by him. In January of this year, following a months-long inquiry, retired judge Sir Robert Owen concluded that Putin had “probably approved” the killing.

That conclusion, coming nearly 10 years after the murder, seems like a good occasion for the publication of a book that sums up not only what we know about the crime but also how we came to know it. There have been other books, most notably Death of a Dissident by Alexander Goldfarb, himself a former Soviet dissident, who was instrumental in smuggling Litvinenko out of Russia in 2000 and, became friends with the escaped Russian once he settled in London; he played a key role in cracking the mystery of the murder before his friend died. Goldfarb’s account, written within months of the murder, is intelligent, contextually rich and insightful. Still, much information was unavailable to him: he did not, for example, report that Litvinenko was on the MI6 payroll at the time of the murder. Some of the arguments Goldfarb used to prove that the Kremlin was behind the killing were debunked by evidence presented at the inquiry, though his overall conclusion was confirmed. Then there was the inquiry’s own report, which presented a well-written record of the evidence reviewed and a rigorous argument that supported the conclusion. In spite of its impressive length, the report left the door open for an old-fashioned well-told story.

Luke Harding served as the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, and ran into enough trouble there to provide material for his 2011 book, The Mafia State. He has also published works on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and American whistleblower Edward Snowden. Given his knowledge of Russia and his experience of writing about the underbelly of secret services, the Litvinenko story might seem perfect for him.

His toolbox is that of a reporter turned crime writer: he sets up every scene with descriptions of interiors or landscape and with staccato portraits of the main characters, which invariably hint at sinister events to come. And yet every chapter seems to lose its wind by the end – perhaps the Litvinenko story cannot in fact be written as a murder mystery. Instead of a diabolical plot, it has a mess of intentions and delegated responsibilities; instead of villains, it features buffoons; instead of master plans, it has muck, which Harding calls “improvisation”. It all seems make-believe and ridiculous, Pink Panther rather than James Bond. Yet it ends with a very real death.

The book seems to me hastily written. At times, the reader of A Very Expensive Poison is left to wonder whom the author is quoting and, more importantly, why he is quoting them. Key scenes make no sense. A week before the poisoning, the two suspected murderers, Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitry Kovtun, first tried to get Litvinenko to ingest the poison. This is how Harding describes it:

We don’t know how the polonium was deployed. The forensic evidence suggests that either Lugovoi or Kovtun slipped it into Litvinenko’s cup of tea or water. Litvinenko failed to notice, or was otherwise distracted. For the next thirty minutes, the tea or glass of water sat in front of him, a little to his left – an invisible nuclear murder weapon.
The conversation was of Gazprom. Lugovoi and Kovtun must have been barely listening: for them, the question was, would Litvinenko drink?
Litvinenko didn’t drink. The plan – pre-meditated, for sure, but possibly improvised in its execution – failed. One can only imagine what must have been going through Lugovoi’s and Kovtun’s minds when the meeting broke up, his drink untouched.

Translated into less racy language, this passage would read: “Radioactive evidence tells us that there was an unsuccessful attempt at murder by polonium. We have no idea of the details and are desperately trying to fill the gaps.” Harding tries to make a dramatic narrative out of incoherent events.

The first half of the book is based on evidence and testimony presented during last year’s inquiry. But around page 240, Harding runs out of material culled from the inquiry and turns to other stories, ones he appears to have reported on for the Guardian in the last few years. These include: the apparent suicide in October 2011 of former oligarch Boris Berezovsky in London; the November 2012 death of businessman Alexander Perepilichnyy, in Surrey, of apparent poisoning; and the spring 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Perhaps the author wanted to compile the latest available evidence on the criminal and ruthless nature of the Putin regime to bolster the case made by the Litvinenko inquiry – though that hardly seems necessary. In any case, these chapters shed little light on what happened to Litvinenko. Judge Owen told that story in fewer words; his report is available online.

To order A Very Expensive Poison for £7.99 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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