THE LITVINENKO FILE: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A RUSSIAN SPY by Martin Sixsmith (St. Martin's), 320 pages, $31 cloth. Rating: NNN
It was one of the most sensational political assassinations plotted in Moscow since Stalin sent his secret service killers to Mexico City and Leon Trotsky's skull was split with the pick of an ice axe.
The murder of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London last year via a deadly dose of radioactive polonium, and the mystery of who and what was behind it, is ably told by former BBC Moscow correspondent Martin Sixsmith in his quickie book The Litvinenko File.
After fleeing Russia one step ahead of the police, Litvinenko found himself feted as a comrade in the anti-Putin opposition.
But by the time he had ingested the polonium, the one-time KGB spy had become a bit of a joke in the coalition of Russian exiles trying to bring down Russian president Vladimir Putin. Among the increasingly bizarre claims made by Litvinenko was that Putin is a serial pedophile.
The real modern Trotsky to the current Russian strongman is Boris Berezovsky, Litvinenko's anti-Putin movement boss. Once the power behind the late president Boris Yeltsin, Berezovsky was forced by Putin to flee Russia, carrying with him many millions of rubles he would soon use to finance his anti-Putin operations.
Sixsmith raises the possibility that Berezovsky may have been behind the killing to frame the Russian president, but then shoots down that conspiracy theory.
Just after this book came out in the UK this spring, British authorities announced they were charging Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian spy who met Litvinenko on the day he fell ill. Lugovoi, it turns out, had been irradiated himself and left a trail of radiation all the way back to Moscow. Russia has already said there is zero chance he will be extradited.
This is a case where truth is truly stranger than fiction.