POISON PEN

Murder the Write Way

By Tess Gerritsen
Sunday, December 17, 2006

As an author of mystery novels and medical thrillers, I inhabit a world in which killers are ruthlessly efficient and assassins seldom make mistakes. So when I consider the recent death of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London, the sheer clumsiness of the crime astonishes me.

This isn't a killing that you'd be likely to find in a crime novel, unless it's one whose hero is Inspector Clouseau.

First, consider the choice of poison. Had the killer wanted quick and fatal results, he could have used any number of easily obtained and reliable old favorites, such as aconite, arsenic or cyanide. For a more exotic ending, an assassin could inject the muscle-paralyzing drug succhinylcholine, and then suffocate the victim.

Or he could use dioxin, the poison that debilitated, though did not kill, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. Or how about a ricin-filled poison dart, like the one used in the 1978 killing of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London? Now that's the kind of work we expect from the James Bond crowd -- elegant, effective and untraceable. And if ricin is given as an oral poison, the symptoms are gastrointestinal, which would lead doctors to think the death was of natural causes.

But Litvinenko's killer chose a poison that is rare and easily tracked: polonium-210. Extremely toxic, polonium is difficult to handle and it leaves a telltale trail of radioactive contamination, which British police have used to trace the poison's spread -- and presumably the killer's footsteps -- throughout London. The villain may as well have left a trail of breadcrumbs. The poison allowed the victim to live for days, during which he was able to provide police with vital information. Wouldn't it have been more efficient to lure him into an alley and fire a bullet into his head? Or how about an old-fashioned mugging gone wrong?

Really, why use poison at all? It strikes me as a peculiarly feminine method of killing. Think of arsenic-laced tea, poured for more than 20 by a murderous Mary Ann Cotton in the 1800s. Or Lucrezia Borgia and her poison ring, or even Agrippina the Younger, serving her husband, Emperor Claudius, a plateful of poisonous mushrooms. In this age of woman power, have even our spies gone girly on us? There were a dozen other ways to kill Litvinenko without leaving a trail of evidence. Was the killer hoping to be caught? Did the collapse of the Soviet Union turn the KGB into Laurel and Hardy?

In real life, some killers are indeed incompetent, and spies have been known to botch assassinations. But in the puzzle palace of the spy novel, incompetence is never what it seems, and the most obvious suspect is never the real culprit.

If I were writing this thriller, I'd immediately cross off Vladimir Putin as the villain, because he's such an easy choice. If anything, the killing of Litvinenko seems intended to make Putin look bad. All the clues point to him. He had the means, the motive and the authority to engineer this death. The trail of polonium, which requires a sophisticated lab to produce, seems to point straight at the Kremlin. So of course it can't be Putin.

Or is Putin so brilliant that he ordered a breathtakingly clumsy killing because he knew no one would believe he was so stupid?

Putin aside, there's a whole cast of suspects to choose from. All those shadowy business associates. All those former KGB spies. And then there are the two men who met the victim at the London hotel bar where the poisoning occurred. Andrei Lugovoi is undergoing tests for polonium poisoning. And Dmitry Kovtun is now a suspect because he was already contaminated when he arrived in England, having left behind traces in his ex-wife's apartment in Germany. Now he, too, appears to have symptoms of poisoning. But Kovtun, like Putin, would be too obvious as the killer.

Surely there's a more satisfying criminal mastermind in all this, someone so hidden, so devious, that the final unveiling will provide the delicious shock we all crave in a good thriller.

Perhaps it's time to cherchez la femme.

This is how I would explain the mystery if it were a novel: Litvinenko wasn't the intended victim at all. Kovtun was supposed to die instead, and the fatal drink got switched at the bar. What do we really know about that ex-wife in Germany, the one with traces of polonium in her apartment? Did Kovtun and his wife get along? Was she Lugovoi's lover? And yet another twist: What if the ex-wife has been secretly working for the Kremlin all along?

Oh, dear. Suddenly we're back to Putin again.

But that's what happens in the world of the thriller novel. Sometimes, even the novelist is shocked.

tess@tessgerritsen.com

Tess Gerritsen, a physician, is the author of medical thrillers, including "The Surgeon," "Vanish," and "The Mephisto Club" (Ballantine).


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