The Terminal Spy by Alan Cowell

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The Terminal Spy by Alan Cowell

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Award-winning & Pulitzer-nominated journalist brings together all of the strands surrounding the murder of emigrant Russian, Litvinenko, by an obscure radioactive isotope in the British capital in 2006. Why was this lowly ex-FSB officer so important that such efforts should be made to silence his loud, but largely ineffectual protests about his former employers?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: August 2008
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 978-0385614153

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Find Bond bordering on the trivial these days? Think that perhaps Le Carré is a little passé? Spooks' too silly for words?

If you answered yes to any of those questions, I recommend you read The Terminal Spy: the Life and Death of Alexander Litvinenko – a true story of espionage, betrayal and murder.

If you think that because the Cold War is over and the Wall has been dismantled, then the Iron Curtain must be rusting away in an untidy heap at the bottom of the Black Sea – think again. That curtain still swishes as well-greased and unseen as ever. The spying game continues unabated.

Things are a little more complicated these days because we're all oh so much more open about it. Hey, we even co-operate with our former enemies. Yeah. Right. Up to a point. (Probably up to the same point that we always did, when it was to our mutual advantage.)

The main focus might be on other threats these days, but just because a professed religion might attract more suspicion than an East-European accent and MI6 has a shiny green Ziggurat that anyone taking a trip along the Thames can freely photograph without fear of arrest doesn't mean that the dark and secret world of street meetings and poisoned umbrellas has gone away. Nor does it mean that the émigré Russian community is everything that it seems.

You will remember Litvinenko. Even if the name has slipped your grasp, you will remember the events of Autumn 2006 when the story broke about a Russian living in London, or more precisely by that point dying in London, who claimed he had been poisoned by an unknown assassin working on behalf of those in highest echelons of Kremlin authority. Headline news in all the media was the story of an apparently low-ranking defector rapidly fading in a London hospital, the victim of radiation poisoning by the elusive isotope Polonium-210.

Alan Cowell now brings us close to the real story of who Litvinenko was and who might have wanted him dead, and why. Very close indeed would be my interpretation, but the case has yet to go to court and questions do remain unanswered.

He also brings us the detail of the how. Polonium poisoning doesn't sound any more or less sinister than poisoning by any other means. The same rules apply. You need to obtain the substance, devise a method of delivery, organise the meeting to make the delivery and leave before the poison takes effect. Simple.

Except that Polonium 210 is a very difficult isotope to handle. Annual world production is measured in grammes. It is highly contaminatory, leaving a glowing trail behind its handlers: always supposing the trackers know what to look for and get there quickly enough. The alpha radiation it emits can be contained by skin, or a sheet of paper, but only infinitesimal fragments of the isotope itself are required to be present for the signature to be detectable. It has a half-life of only 138 days, which means it decays very quickly. You cannot stockpile it against an opportunity.

As a poison it is terminal. Fast acting in the correct dose. It has no antidote and so it will kill even at lower than optimal dosage. More slowly and very painfully, as those who watched Litvinenko die will testify.

It can be ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the lips or an open wound.

As a terrorist weapon it has an unbelievable capacity for a scatter-gun approach.

Luckily, it has very few commercial applications, its production is closely monitored and using it requires huge investment in appropriate laboratory facilities to deal with the preparation.

In the case of Litvinenko, his killers didn't need much. They didn't want to terrorise a city. They maybe wanted to send a message to a few key individuals and for that, they only needed to kill one of them. Quickly. Surreptitiously. Preferably without getting caught in the act.

The Terminal Spy is the first time that all of the known information regarding the Litvinenko case has been published in one concise volume. Cowell's credentials for producing the work include covering the story as it broke whilst working in the London bureau of the New York Times. His position on the NY Times gave him access to colleagues covering the Moscow bureau and all of their contacts and facilities at the Russian end of the story. He is a veteran journalist: winner of the George Polk award for coverage of apartheid in South Africa which got him expelled from the country and a Pulitzer nominee. Connections in Frankfurt and Italy also helped.

He freely acknowledges that some of his interviewees co-operated on condition of anonymity, which he has respected. For the rest his sources are quoted chapter by chapter.

The power of the book, however, isn't just in Cowell's experience as an investigative journalist, his connections, his reputation for keeping his word, his tenacity and ability to make connections: for the average reader, the power lies also in his ability to take the facts and theories and structure them into a cohesive narrative, then to spin that narrative out like a work of fiction. To be blunt: he is a damn good story teller.

We all know that Litvinenko died. We know who the CPS want to see in the courtroom. We know that's it's unlikely to happen. None of that stops the nearly 400 pages of The Terminal Spy being a gripping read.

It is classic why-dunnit territory. The real question of the affair, once the 'how' had belatedly been established, and irrespective of the 'who', is: why? Delving into the past Cowell brings us not only Litvinenko's story, but the background to everyone else involved in the plot or seen lurking on the sidelines or simply being in the way of potentially collateral damage. He asks why? How do these paths cross and where is the crossroad that makes Litvinenko important enough to silence? As the ancients would have asked: cui bono?

Along the way, the reader gets a clear insight into murky worlds: not just the ever-suspect world of the FSB or the multiple-treacheries ever inherent in international espionage, but the much grubbier worlds of post-Soviet businessmen and their inconceivable wealth; worlds where patronage continues much as it did in the 1800s; strange worlds where foreigners look upon the British Crown Jewels and see a symbol of power and safety, but where men in raincoats still meet by the statue of Eros and by the time you realise the tea tastes a bit odd, it's way too late.

I was left with a vision of my own capital City that is hard to comprehend. The sheer scale of the wealth involved. The degree to which such events take place on the streets of the most heavily surveilled city in the world. But also with a notion that Russia really hasn't moved on since the days of Rasputin and that even in the darkest deeds, we English somehow still expect a certain adherence to the rules of engagement and a spirit of fair play. To paraphrase one contributor: you have to understand that to these people poison is just another tool, like a pistol or a bomb. They are correct when they say that in Britain, particularly, we don't see it that way. We do view poison as somehow not being quite cricket even in dirty games of murder: traditionally viewed as a woman's weapon, cowardly and deserving of no respect whatever the cause might be in which its deployed.

And we particularly object when innocents get caught in the fall-out.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

You might also enjoy Shadow Woman by Linda Howard.

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