A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West
Author: Luke Harding
Rating: 4 Stars
Review By: Shana
This 2016 book, unfortunately, remains all too relevant and has a ripped from the headlines feel. Harding not only recounts (with all materials available at the time of printing) the events that lead up to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in particular, but more generally looks at the events that have shaped Russia under Vladimir Putin. This includes a truncated explanation of the fall of the USSR and the birth of Russia, how the assets that used to belong to the state were divvied up among the Oligarchs, the failure of any nascent democracy in Russia, Putin's improbable rise and eventual consolidation of power, and workings and tenor of present-day Russia under Putin.
For a one-stop-shop to get a broader understanding of Russia and Putin, this works quite well. If you are looking for a purely true crime novel about Litvinenko's murder, or if you want a realpolitik exploration of Russian aims and aggression, this book will either be too expansive (if you want the former) or too superficial (if you want the latter).
That said, Harding is a solid journalist. His prose is crisp and engaging, and he often does a very good job of explaining convoluted and confusing events. His willingness to not only explore Litvinenko's life, and how it eventually led him to England, but also larger topics underpinning the case (such as the aforementioned history of the USSR/Russia, Russian corruption, and Russia's weapons program) enriches the reader's understanding of the murder and of Putin.
My one complaint is that I did not always understand where the story was going. Harding did not approach this purely in chronological order--starting with discussions of the eventual murder, then examining Litvinenko and how he came to England, then (after the murder is carried out) rewinding to discuss the sources of the poison and how it wound its way to England, and then jumping forward again to talk about the struggle of bringing the killers to justice (still outstanding) and holding an Inquest (completed). I'm not sure how I would have organized it, but the jumping around was off-putting. Nonetheless, a very good book and excellent insight in Putin's tactics of eliminating opposition by any means necessary.