Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Story of a Signature Crime

I am usually wary of claims that a crime committed with a particular m.o. is a "signature crime." Such claims usually strike me as urban myths or as the products of self-aggrandizing "experts." However, when the Litvinenko business first broke, it struck me (see, e.g., here) that the poisoning and eventual killing of Litvinenko with a highly toxic and barely detectable poison, Polonium 210, was indeed the signature -- the likely hallmark -- of a crime committed by the present-day successors to the KGB. Well, it turns out that my suspicions (and those of many others) were probably correct. See this NYTimes book review by Simon Sebag Montefiore. (How can one doubt the credibility of a person with such a magnificent name?) But, dyed in the wool academic that I am, the interesting part of this story for me is why my notions about how the KGB committed crimes turned out to be correct. Part of the explanation is that the newspaper stories that reported on the Litvinenko business also reported other cases in which the KGB and FSB had supposedly used a similar m.o. But even before I read those relatively recent newspaper accounts I had the impression that the Russian secret police were in the habit of doing their dirty work with furtively-administered poisons. So I was the captive of an urban myth. But it was a myth that turned out to be very probably true. Isn't that interesting?

N.B. Didn't Ian Fleming use furtive poisoning as one of the tactics of his SMERSH in at least one of his James Bond novels?

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