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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Riddle Wrapped in Cabbage and Put in a Doll

Ast MoskvaThe cover of the new novel "Breakfast With Polonium," written in one month.
As Scotland Yard continues its investigation into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a new book spells out who poisoned an FSB agent with polonium-210.

No, it wasn't President Vladimir Putin. Nor was it exiled businessman Boris Berezovsky. Instead, it was the work of an aide to a Russian oligarch who did it for love.

Alexander Litovchenko was killed because the aide was jealous of his affair with the wife of the exiled oligarch, according to "Breakfast With Polonium," a new book that hit stores late last month.

Scotland Yard is unlikely to use the book as evidence. "Breakfast with Polonium," after all, is a novel scribbled in haste by a husband-and-wife team specializing in fiction based on true crimes. They are now seeking to cash in on the death of Litvinenko in London last November.

The authors, Alexander and Natalya Pankov, who publish under the pen name Natalya Alexandrova, began writing the novel in December and finished just over a month later. The couple have written more than 80 books together.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former Federal Security Service agent, died in London on Nov. 23 after being given a fatal dose of polonium-210. In a letter released after his death, he accused Putin of being behind the poisoning.

The government has denied any involvement. Both Scotland Yard and the Prosecutor General's Office are investigating the case.

"Breakfast with Polonium" is well-crafted pulp fiction that speeds along despite the fact it hangs on more spy cliches and stereotypes than a Russian riddle, wrapped in a cabbage and then hidden inside a matryoshka doll.

The novel begins with an angry Putin calling FSB director Nikolai Patrushev to his office. Dissatisfied with Patrushev's answers, Putin decides to take things into his own hands and has an old FSB colleague, Pavel, kidnapped and brought to the Kremlin. Putin tells him that if he finds out the truth about the poisoning, he will tell Pavel who killed his wife eight years before.

Pavel accepts the mission, and within a day of his arrival in London, he is tortured by Chechens, described as friends of Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev, rescued and then tortured again by a "dwarf" former KGB agent.

The real names of Putin, Zakayev and Patrushev are used in the book, but the names of other major characters -- the names of people more likely to sue, a cynic might say -- are changed. Therefore, Alexander Litvinenko is "Alexander Litovchenko" and Boris Berezovsky is "Ilya Borzovsky."

Many adventures later -- in a sordid London filled with teen prostitutes, drug addicts and dodgy Arab princes -- Pavel discovers who poisoned the FSB agent and dispatches him in a dramatic scene in Big Ben.

The murderer is Vladimir Polyakov, an aide to Borzovsky, who is in love with the oligarch's wife, Milena. She spurns him, however, for Litovchenko -- the book switches genre at this point as the two are described, in a misty flashback, making love in a garden hut -- and Polyakov decides to take revenge. He gets the polonium by blackmailing an old school friend who is luckily a leading, albeit very poor, scientist in a closed scientific city in Siberia.

"I do not comment on fiction," Berezovsky said by telephone, adding that the only fiction he liked was that of controversial author Vladimir Sorokin. His wife, Yelena, recently read Sorokin's latest book, "Day of the Oprichnik," a dystopian tale of Russia run by a brutal dictatorship in 2027, and commented, "That is how the Russian people want to live," Berezovsky said.

The Pankovs said they chose Polyakov as the murderer not to show support for Putin, but because major events are often triggered by trivial issues.

"The reason is often something minor," Alexander Pankov said. "If there had been bread in shops in St. Petersburg in 1917, then there wouldn't have been a revolution."

Pankov said he researched the book by talking to former colleagues of Putin from St. Petersburg.

In 2000, the pair wrote a book about the theft of a painting from the Hermitage Museum. In that novel, the thief was no criminal mastermind, but simply a young man who wanted to impress his girl by stealing the painting.

Last year, the painting that the book was based on turned up in such a condition that it was obvious that it had not been stolen by an art lover, Pankov said.

The novel is neither the first nor the last based on the Litvinenko murder. Former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith published "The Litvinenko File" on April 2, and Litvinenko's wife, Marina, and a friend, Alexander Goldfarb, are writing a manuscript, as is The New York Times correspondent Alan Cowell.

Pankov said he saw nothing unethical about writing fiction about the case.

"We don't write anything bad about him," said Pankov, who did not think that the Litvinenko character's affair with another woman was something negative. "We don't offend anyone. ... We changed the name."