|the 1940 mystery writer||
When the Cold War wasn't so cold
_During the 1970s, novelist and playwright Georgi Markov was a thorn in the Bulgarian government’s side. A talented and satirical critic of the Communists, Markov defected to England and broadcast his no-holds-barred brand of wit back to his homeland via the BBC. Infuriated, members of the Bulgarian secret service, the Committee for State Security, decided to become a thorn in Markov’s . . . right thigh. On September 7, 1978, Markov crossed Waterloo Bridge and joined the queue to catch a bus when he felt a sudden sharp pain in his leg, similar to an insect bite or sting. He turned and saw a man fumbling with a furled umbrella. The man mumbled an apology, crossed the street, and caught a cab. Markov continued to the BBC offices, where he told several co-workers of the incident. He also mentioned it to his wife that night at home, and showed her the puncture mark, surrounded by angry red swelling, on the back of his right thigh.
That was Thursday afternoon. On Friday morning, Markov was taken to the hospital with a rising fever and uncontrollable vomiting. Over the next three days, his temperature and blood pressure collapsed, his pulse and white blood count tripled, and he lapsed into confusion with bouts of violence. An X-ray of the inflamed puncture wound detected nothing. The patient’s official diagnosis was septicemia or blood poisoning, but antibiotics had no effect. On Monday, September 11, Georgi Markov died.
The infamous pellet
_Clearly the Bulgarian dissident had been poisoned. But the initial autopsy found nothing, and so the small chunk of Markov’s right thigh displaying the swelling and puncture wound were sent by Scotland Yard to the Chemical Defense Establishment (CDE) at Porton Down, where leading experts in poisons and nerve agents perform top-secret research for the U.K. military and secret services. There, Dr. David Gall’s more intensive analysis found a tiny metal bead, measuring only 1.52mm, embedded not far beneath the skin. As a comparison, 1.52mm is smaller than the 2mm diamonds that sometimes encircle larger gemstones on a ring or pendant. It’s smaller than a pinhead. Continued analysis showed the pellet was made of 90% platinum and 10% iridium—stronger than steel, incorrodible, and invisible to X-rays. (No, I’m not making this up.) The pellet had been drilled with two minute holes in the shape of a cross. The Porton Down team deducted that the two holes had been filled with some incredibly potent poison and stoppered with a wax or sugary gel, which would melt within the heat of a human body and free the poison to do its work. This spy-thriller bullet could only have been fired by a silenced air gun hidden within the umbrella held by the man on Waterloo Bridge.
But there were no traces of any recognizable poison within Markov’s body. That in itself was a clue, as most poisons break down into known toxicological remnants which provide the means for doctors to treat their patients (or for investigators to find their killers). The Porton Down team therefore knew they were seeking the perfect poison—one powerful enough to kill a large and healthy man with a tiny dose, no more than one-fifth of a milligram, and then to vanish from his body, leaving no clues behind.
A Bulgarian umbrella
_Everyone agreed it could only be ricin. An extract from castor beans, ricin is 500 times more virulent than cyanide or arsenic. It causes the same symptoms as those suffered by Markov, including liver damage, kidney failure, and small hemorrhages in the intestines, heart, and lymph nodes. There’s no known antidote. And ricin is broken down by the protein-making cells within the human body, so that no traces remain after the victim’s death. (It also breaks down quickly if it doesn’t find a warm body to call home, making ricin unsuitable for large-scale deployment as a chemical or biological weapon.)
Ten days before the assault on Markov, another Bulgarian defector, Vladimir Kostov, also experienced a sudden sharp pain, this time in his upper back. When he turned around, the man behind him at the Paris Metro station was fumbling with his briefcase. Kostov also fell ill, with a high fever that required hospitalization, but he recovered. A pellet similar to the one that killed Markov was later removed from Kostov’s shoulder, in a large muscle nowhere near any major blood vessels—the reason Kostov survived and Markov did not.
Although the involvement of the Bulgarian secret service and perhaps even the KGB are obvious, the murder of Georgi Markov remains an open Scotland Yard case. The files of the Committee for State Security were ordered destroyed by Atanas Semerdzhiev, Bulgaria’s Interior Minister, in 1990. The Bulgarian statute of limitations expired September 2008.