Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: A VERY EXPENSIVE POISON, by Luke Harding

A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvenenko and Putin's War with the West, by Luke Harding. Published 2017 by Vintage. Nonfiction.

If you want to read something that will keep you up at night, A Very Expensive Poison: The Assassination of Alexander Litvenenko and Putin's War with the West is as good as any thriller out there- with the additional zing that this is a very true story about an inept but ultimately successful plot to kill a journalist and the investigation that went all the way to the top of the Russian government.

Alexander Litvenenko was a journalist who became an enemy of the Putin government when he threatened to expose its role in scandals that shook Russia, in particular an apartment bombing that killed several hundred Russians and may have been orchestrated by the Kremlin to promote public support for the war in Chechnya. Litvenenko ended up fleeing Russia with the help of oil oligarch Boris Berezovsky, himself an enemy of the state, and lived for a time in London with his wife and son until two bungling henchmen poisoned him with polonium, a radioactive element that is only produced at a couple of labs within Russia. So while from an official point of view no charges have been pursued against Putin, from another point of view there's really no question who's responsible.

Journalist Luke Harding tells this harrowing and tragic story with verve and enough detail that the reader will feel fully immersed in the details of the killing, the investigative aftermath and the bureaucracy and corruption surrounding the whole affair. It's also incredibly frightening on any number of levels. Litvenenko's is not the only dead body in the story and though I will say it loses some momentum about 2/3 of the way through it picks up again right towards the very end.

I really couldn't put the book down. It probably took me about a week to read it and I wanted to be reading it every waking minute of that time. Last year I read Masha Gessen's scary The Man Without a Face, her story of Vladimir Putin's rise, and the Litvenenko murder was part of that story; this book fleshes it out and gives us a level of detail Gessen could not, but you don't need to have read her book for this one to chill you to the bone. If you're interested in the current head of the government who is so admired by the head of our own, A Very Expensive Poison will make it hard to sleep at night, one way or the other.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.