Russian defector Alexander Litvinenko died slowly, painfully and publicly in hisadopted home city of London. Stricken on November 1, 2006, by a sudden and mysterious ailment, he lingered for 22 days, confounding an array of top physicians, before his body finally wasted away. Investigators ultimately discovered that he had ingested a lethal dose of the rare radioactive element Polonium 210.

As soon as he realized he had been poisoned, the former KGB (and subsequently FSB) intelligence agent blamed the attack on Russian President and fellow KGB alumnus Vladimir Putin - a charge Putin brushed aside with contempt. Nevertheless, the assassination set off diplomatic fireworks between Downing Street and the Kremlin that continue to reverberate. In The Terminal Spy, Alan S. Cowell provides brief histories of all the major players (most via personal interviews), including the chief suspected assassin, Andrei Lugovoi; and fugitive billionaire Boris Berezovsky, who became Litvinenko's patron in London and who had earlier engineered Litvinenko's only face-to-face meeting with Putin soon after Putin became head of the FSB in 1998.

Although Litvinenko was clearly a bit player in the grand clash between Putin's and Berezovsky's views of how Russia should operate, he courted direct retaliation not only by fleeing from his homeland illegally but also by persisting to rail against Putin and his policies throughout his five-plus years in England. Even in death, Cowell says, Litvinenko remains a mystery. He notes that those who knew the victim agree that "[h]e was a zealot. He was flaky. He saw connections where no one else did. He was obsessive. But they will also say he was a professional, an investigator, well practiced in the dark arts of his business." Cowell, a former London bureau chief for the New York Times, makes no judgment of his own here as to who killed Litvinenko or why, but he does go a long way toward clarifying why the fall of Soviet communism and the upsurge of unbridled Russian capitalism created such social, economic and political havoc.

Edward Morris writes from Nashville.

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