A deadly fascination

I'VE just been reading a cracking thriller, in which a former Russian spy meets a mysterious Italian in a Japanese restaurant in London and…Oh no, silly me, this isn't fiction, is it? It's real life - and real, grisly death.

I'VE just been reading a cracking thriller, in which a former Russian spy meets a mysterious Italian in a Japanese restaurant in London and…

Oh no, silly me, this isn't fiction, is it? It's real life - and real, grisly death.

Not the sort of thing one should find entertaining. And yet, why have we all been so gripped by every least detail of Alexander Litvinenko's bizarre death if not for the chilly entertainment value?

Martin Cruz Smith couldn't have written a better plot, with shadowier characters or more potential for working out a good conspiracy theory.

In fact, so much of the story echoes Cruz Smith's novels that it's hard not to think of Litvinenko as a real-life Arkady Renko. Even the names have a rhyming ring.

Cruz Smith's book Wolves Eat Dogs hinges on the mystery poisoning of two central characters with radioactive salt that could only have come from a nuclear reactor. And it seemed so far-fetched when it came out in 2004.

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Despite hints of evil in high places, the real villains of that tale are not in government.

Litvinenko himself, though, was in no doubt about who was ultimately responsible for his murder. As he lay dying, he pointed the finger of blame squarely at Vladimir Putin.

Russia's president, of course, denies it - but he would, wouldn't he?

Mind you, Litvinenko seems to have been so riven with hatred for Putin that his accusation was as predictable as the denial. And there seem to have been plenty of others with grudges against the former KGB defector.

A Russian intelligence spokesman insisted Litvinenko was “not the kind of person for whose sake we would spoil relations with Britain”. He might have said relations with the whole world.

In one way, though, Putin's government does have a clear responsibility. And it's possibly the scariest aspect of the whole nasty business.

Litvinenko himself explained it shortly before he died: “First, the Russian parliament passes a law in the middle of this year which allows the government to pursue and attack 'extremists' all over the world. So now it's legal.

“A few days later they enacted another law which defines 'extremist' - anyone who is critical of the government.”

What it amounts to is an 007-style licence to kill - anywhere in the world - anyone who “slanders” Russia's president. And that's something Litvinenko made a habit of doing on a grand scale.

If he was killed by Russian agents, they were acting within Russian law. Though not, of course, British or international law.

And whether or not his killing was explicity ordered, you could easily see the passing of such laws as an implicit order.

Whoever killed Litvinenko, why did they use such a showy method? Why not a simple gunshot - or a staged traffic “accident”?

That would have been the Western way. The use of such a difficult and dangerous radioactive poison shows an interesting cultural difference.

But it also shows that the killing was meant to be big news.

Which either means - as the Kremlin insists - that it was designed to discredit Putin in the world's eyes.

Or, equally plausibly, that it was intended to spread fear among Putin's enemies and critics in Russia and beyond.

Would Putin risk appearing in the world at large to sponsor terror?

I'd say he probably feels powerful enough to get away with almost anything.

****

I OPENED my email inbox this morning to find I had 139 messages, ranging from “Give her the satisfaction she wants” and “Why be an average guy” to “Gayle Larkman Grahams Stuph” and “inalienable UMGK”.

And that's not counting (or looking at) the 196 messages that had gone straight into my trash folder.

These days that's a fairly normal day's haul.

It's not as bad, obviously, as the forest-destroying pile of real-world junk mail that lands on my physical doormat. But it's still a huge and pointless traffic jam blocking up the information superhighway.

So I'm sorry if I accidentally deleted a real message from you among all the garbage.

Happily, I no longer seem to get the stuff that once plagued me - invitations (unaccepted, I hasten to add) to view photos or video of various obscene acts.

But I've received dozens, probably hundreds, of times a message with the subject-line: “She will love you more than any other guy.”

Actually, I never really wanted a guy to love me in that way, but I suppose the sender (who keeps using different names) doesn't know that.

Other titles that reappear with boring regularity include “Quality medications all over the world” and “Full of health? Then don't click!” (I don't).

Lately there's been a spate of “Damara / Aloisya / Janessa/ Sabrina / various other names has sent you a photo from Vacation”. I don't know anyone by any of these names, so straight in the bin they go.

Today's collection included “shame of sex? we can change it”. (The shame, or the sex? I didn't open it to find out).

I was more intrigued by “lassencom maderacom marincom”.

And right below that in my inbox: “didn't understand it”. Quite.

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