“God, I miss the Cold War,” says M dryly in the new Bond movie, Casino Royale. She means that she’s nostalgic for the good old days when you knew which government was doing what, and it was just a matter of one’s own government doing something worse in retaliation, and most of the time the people who got killed were involved in some way.
Today we mostly have crude, barbaric, mass-murdering bomb attacks carried out with a painful lack of discrimination. But the world got to relive the cloak-and-dagger suspense of that earlier era throughout November, as defected Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko lay in a London hospital, dying of an unidentified poison following two meetings on November 1. After initial confusion, it turned out that the ex-KGB officer’s death on November 23 was caused by a rare radioactive substance known as Polonium-210. He’d literally been nuked.
Who dunnit? Why? They’ll get to that once they’ve decontaminated everything in Litvinenko’s wake, and finished answering all the hotline calls to the National Health Service from citizens understandably concerned about nuclear sushi.
Tragic though Litvinenko’s death is, his story is only the entry point to a real-life crime thriller, being published in very tiny instalments in the paper. The chilling sophistication of his murder puts one in mind of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov who, in 1978, was poked in the thigh with a poisoned umbrella near Waterloo Bridge; and, with shadowy secret services and oil interests, it has the potential to be a cracker of a tale.
It has also added a frisson to waking up in the morning. Most of us lead very boring lives, and it seems much more adventurous to drink a nice cuppa or catch a quick lunchtime bite when doing so defies the risk of growing a third ear or perishing from cyanide mixed into the restaurant sugar bowl. Many of us suffer from a Walter Mitty complex (after James Thurber’s daydreaming protagonist in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)—a dashingly heroic secret alter ego who lives on a constant adrenaline high in our heads even as our real bodies sit at our desks or do the dinner dishes.
As a kid I used to write fervent notes addressed to my favourite cartoon characters, a quintet of crime-fighting superheroes. The notes said things like, “Come and take me away this evening, I have my costume ready” and I used to throw them out of the window of our third-floor flat at the rate of one a week, in the firm belief that they would one day reach the addressees instead of my sister, who kept finding them and telling my parents. I am going to get the spaceship to buzz her when we leave.
I also used to write down the number plates of suspicious-looking drivers and detailed descriptions of their physical persons, just in case the police wanted me to depose in court. Sometimes (I’m not proud of this) I lurked behind pillars practicing my shadowing techniques, listening to people’s conversations to determine whether they had just come from committing a crime. In the seventh grade, my best friend and I developed a secret script to communicate the particulars of our intergalactic vigilantism. I still use the script, though what with freelancing and all, I have less time to devote to the outer reaches of the Horsehead Nebula.
The awful thing is that bigger and worse things than we can dream up probably go on around us all the time. Who can blame the conspiracy theorists for pointing that out?
By the way, the really bad news is that Polonium-210 exists in fearful quantities in cigarettes.