New York Times London bureau chief Cowell (A Walking Guide, 2003, etc.) investigates the murder of KGB agent turned defector Alexander Litvinenko.
The George Polk Award–winning journalist’s doggedly reported and dramatically written account takes Litvinenko’s poisoning in a tony London hotel as a jumping-off point to examine the repression and paranoia that characterizes Russia under Vladimir Putin. Litvinenko overcame a troubled childhood and mediocre academic record to win a coveted position in the KGB. He had an average career, which ended when he became disgruntled over corruption within the KGB’s successor organization, the FSB. He moved to London and was frequently a target of Russian assassins, who bungled several efforts until November 1, 2006, when Litvinenko unknowingly drank tea laced with a radioactive isotope and lingered for 22 days before dying. Cowell tells the story with literary panache but doesn’t let his stylish prose eclipse the substance of a sordid tale. The sections about espionage and the assassination are worthy of Tom Clancy, but the author’s political analysis is equally riveting. In his judgment, the seemingly great strides toward democracy taken under Gorbachev and Yeltsin have been reversed by Putin, who has made Russia more authoritarian and less tolerant of dissent. The book’s only notable flaw results from Cowell’s need to share almost all of his admittedly impressive research—the narrative occasionally drags and goes off on tangents. In general, though, the text flows nicely through every twist and turn of the real-life plot, and the questions raised by the author are mostly answered.
A well-told true-crime tale mixed with expert political/historical analysis.