The Art of a Good Book Blurb

We did a little experiment recently with book blurbs. Blurbs are the few words on the back of a paperback that entice you into its pages and are a key tool in selling. Without a good one, the perspective reader will return your book to the shelf and select another author’s. It’s therefore important to find a way for those two-dozen words to make an impact. But how?

paperback-books-1309582-1278x849Our experiment was prompted when I started to think about blurbs for my latest thriller, The Rival. I eventually came up with 25 words that I felt effectively engaged the reader and I was pleased with the result. For a comparison, I re-read the blurb I’d created for Eavesdrop in conjunction with my publisher a couple of years before and realised that Eavesdrop’s blurb was missing something that the one I had just moulded for The Rival had somehow captured. But why did one feel so much more effective? I read and re-read them before I suddenly realised the difference was in the depth of emotional involvement.

The original wording for Eavesdrop had been search engine optimized; it captured the most important and exciting plot points; it displayed the style and tone of the book; it was short and punchy. But it didn’t engage in the same way. So I decided to test my new theory, and re-wrote it with the aim of putting the reader in the shoes of the protagonist. Instead of saying what he did, I instead asked, what you would do in the same situation?

book-eyes-1251357To test whether my thoughts on this were correct, we then held an on-line poll among readers to get their view on 3 slightly different blurbs for Eavesdrop.  We used the original one that had been so highly polished with my publishers, and put it alongside the one that maximized emotional engagement, and threw in a third that I made up in ten seconds. Here they are below in random order. Read them quickly. Don’t analyze them just yet, but simply read them as you would in a bookshop and see which draws you in most:

Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East Assassins?

Your Customs Investigator career in ruins, your wife fighting cancer… What do you do when you discover the reason behind your dismissal is a police cover-up, and that there’s a way to prove your innocence?

James Winter’s career is trashed when a Mossad plan to track Syrian assassins has unexpected consequences. His fight for re-instatement uncovers a Middle East plot that suddenly threatens his own life.

So which of those made you most want to open the book and see what chapter one is like? The results in our poll were conclusive, with the middle one a winner by a large margin. The theory I’d stumbled upon merely by observation had been proven.

So, the secret of a good book blurb is to emotionally engage your perspective reader and to get him or her to feel what it would be like if they were your protagonist. As soon as they experience the same adrenaline surge, the same despair, the same anger as the hero, then the blurb has done its job. They are emotionally engaged, and so much closer to buying that book.

About the Author


Ian Coates is the author of a thriller, Eavesdrop, originally published by Bad Day Books, the suspense and thriller imprint of Assent Publishing.  He worked in the high tech electronics industry for 30 years, where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. His intimate knowledge of that environment always triggered his imagination to think about the mysterious world of spies, and allowed him to bring a unique authenticity to his thriller. Ian is proud to support the British Science Association and donates a proportion of his book proceeds to that charity.  He lives and writes in Worcestershire with his wife and two daughters.

Amazon website

Author’s website




High Tech & The Modern Author (pt2)

This month we conclude our 2 part blog on the impact of modern tech on the modern author.

New opportunities

As well as modern tech placing constraints on the author, it also provides new opportunities. Exploiting them can lead to fresh and unique plots and helps to avoid the regurgitation of stale ideas.

Think cyber-terrorists for instance. Twenty years ago, such a term was unknown; now, they can hold major organisations to ransom or, as in the case of the attack on the Iranian reactors, invisibly destroy an enemy’s resources.

HackerThe hacker who stumbles over confidential government data, the virus creator who can infiltrate an organisation’s systems and extract sensitive documents, these all offer new plot lines that couldn’t exist in Agatha Christie’s day.

But beware!

It’s too easy to be late at picking up such plot ideas. Ten years ago, it was a new and exciting idea to have hackers who become the CIA’s target when they accidently discover dramatic government information. Many authors spotted that opportunity, however; today it has already become clichéd and boring.

So keep ears open and receptive to new ideas as technology develops. But be there first—or your resulting plot could quickly feel clichéd. It’s not only tech that moves quickly.

Too Much Like Science Fiction

But here lies another problem. Adding very cutting-edge scientific advances to a thriller can easily get it booted into the trashcan labelled “unrealistic.” A step too far and it can seem too close to science-fiction for many readers. Of this, the author must beware.

vanquishThe James Bond films are a good example of this, which for many people veer into unrealism. Think of 007’s Aston Martin Vanquish in Die Another Day for example: it was a car that the touch of a button rendered invisible.  The idea for this probably came from technology that even today is still in its infancy. Take an object you want to disappear and coat the side facing you with a full-size colour display. Next, fix a camera array facing away from you to its reverse side. Voila—you now have the ability to make your object disappear at the flick of a few trillion pixels: by displaying what the camera sees over the display, the item can appear to disappear because the user sees instead what is behind that object.

The technology is far from the state needed for that James Bond film, however—if the person moves, they need to see the image change angle, which if-course it can’t; the illusion is shattered.

Technology overcomes that issue by placing an additional camera facing the person and using eye-tracking techniques and advanced imaging algorithms to work out where they are looking. It then adjusts what is rendered on the display in response. Introduce a second observer, of-course, and that too becomes broken.

So the technology to provide an invisibility cloak is very much in its infancy. The basic concept has been demonstrated but, so far, the step to Bond’s Aston Martin is still too far. So despite having a foundation in reality, it appears to be pure science fiction to 99% of the population; the battle for reality is lost.

The scientific-aware author therefore needs caution in what they portray. Ensure readers don’t dismiss as unrealistic what you have carefully researched. The cutting-edge can often be a step too far.


I was caught out by this myself a few years ago when watching a film in which the CIA remotely monitored the conversation of two terrorists by using the microphone in one of their mobile phones. Working in mobile phone R&D as I was at the time, I dismissed this as nonsense, and it spoilt the rest of the film for me. However, sometime later, I read how, indeed, such an act can be performed by taking control of the phone with the aid of the service provider.

Again, this is a warning to the tech-savvy author to be careful, even when using proven technology—if the average reader deems it unrealistic, avoid it.

Or invest a large proportion of your chapters to showing why it is realistic. Take the reader through the invention’s development, show them how it works; perhaps then they’ll believe you.

A New Genre—the Technothriller

That drags us screaming into the realm of that new genre, the technothriller. No, we’re not talking science-fiction here, but a story that revolves around technology that is grounded at least loosely in reality. The whole plot can revolve around the development and use of some new gadget or scientific invention. This provides numerous opportunities for writers to introduce thriller elements into a story that focuses heavilyTyping on technology. Wikipedia proposes Alastair Maclean’s The Satan Bug and Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October as good examples of this genre. Maclean dealt with the theft of germ warfare toxins to which there was no known cure; and Clancy chose to deal with an attempt to steal a highly advanced Russian submarine.

But the author must really know his field if he is to venture into this genre, and I would suggest the focus of such novels is so techno-centric that its readership might be limited in comparison to that enjoyed by main stream genre-fiction.

A Conclusion of Tech Versus Author

So the latest advances in science and technology provide new and exciting opportunities. They also scatter snares on the path of the unwary author and make traditional crucible-studyingstyle stories harder to site in the modern day. Rather than leading to the death of the thriller, technology simply shifts the landscape that’s available to the writer.

Those who write novels based in our current era have a responsibility to keep abreast of technological discoveries. But much of an author’s life is dedicated to research anyway, so that is not really anything new either.


About the author

Eavesdrop-cover-squareEavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?

Find it on Amazon

More About the Author

Ian posts on Facebook at:

His Tweets can be found at:


Photographs ( by: Natalia Pankova, Stefano Barni, Pietro Ricciardi, Chris Cockran, Lotus Head, Nick Benjamisz, Philippe Ramaken, Ryan Bowen, Simon Stratford, Colin Adamson, Matthew Bowden.



By iancoatesthrillers

High-Tech & the Modern Thriller

Modern readers expect pace-racing action, an intriguing plot, and realistic characters. But they also demand a believable story, and that presents a unique challenge to thriller writers in today’s world of high-tech gadgets, the internet, and massive computing power.

I love working with high-tech. I graduated in electronics in the eighties, and the exciting gadgets and ideas that engineers generate never fail to amaze me. I try to use that experience to enhance my writing, and in this two-part blog, we’ll look at some of the constraints and difficulties our high-tech world imposes on story lines, the new challenges authors must grapple with to maintain realism, but also the fresh opportunities that new technology offers for plot ideas.

High Tech in the Crucible

For Agatha Christie, it was simple. Suspense could easily be generated by imprisoning her book’s characters in an environment in which mortal danger lurks, but from which they cannot escape. This is sometimes known as “The Crucible” technique.

Trapping them there is a simple way to create tension—take six friends and place them in a manor house surrounded by ten feet thick snowdrifts; they cannot leave. Now murder one of their party, and the opportunity for tension is obvious. The murderer is one of the five still alive; he or she is still in their midst because there is no way to leave. And if they find someone has snipped the phone line, they cannot call for support. They are stuck with a murderer without help. What was his motive? Will he strike again?

While that was fine for the 1950s, it is hard to make such scenarios work these days. Any of the guests could call the emergency services from their mobile, or send a Tweet to the lmobilephone-smlocal police station. The modern writer creating stories based in the 21st century must therefore work a little harder than their predecessors to make crucibles work.

And technology makes plot lines more difficult in other situations, not just the crucible. Barely twenty-five years ago, no-one but the richest high-fliers had a mobile phone; today, seventy-five percent of the world’s population can make a phone call almost anywhere across the globe. These days, a 4G phone call can be made on Mount Everest to an altitude of 5,200m[i]. This means modern authors cannot be lazy. They must work at their plots to ensure they remain realistic in the modern world.

When writing Eavesdrop, which has pivotal scenes in Finland, I had to site some of them in the country’s remoter northern areas away from its capital Helsinki so that the hero couldn’t simply use his phone to tell the authorities what he’d discovered. These days, isolation can be difficult to achieve.


As spy writer Charles Cummings pointed out in an article for The Times[ii], technologies such as number-plate recognition cameras and computer systems that track phone calls and credit card swipes mean a terrorist is no longer able to drive across Europe unseen.  Now, one’s character must have access to credit cards in false names (and must therefore have a means to obtain those, despite all of today’s identity checks), and have contacts who can arrange false car registration plates, as well as access to large amounts of cash without arising

None of these are impossible; they simply make the author’s work harder to maintain realism.


Demands on the Modern Writer

As well as recent advances in technology imposing constraints on modern plot lines, they also place a demand on authors to keep abreast of what’s possible.

F16 jetFor instance, hacking and virus generation are now sciences in their own right, and the author needs to be aware of what can be done. Think, for instance, of Israel’s scheme to destroy Iranian nuclear plants in 2008. They could have sent F15 and F16 fighters across Saudi Arabia from their Negev base to drop 2000lb bombs on the reactors as they did in 1981. However, twenty-seven years later they took a more subtle approach.

In conjunction with American intelligence experts, Israel’s software engineers developed a computer worm (a type of virus) they christened Staxret. Once released, the virus spread throughout the world’s computer networks to hunt the specific Siemens computers known to be running the Iranian’s uranium enrichment plants. Once it had infected those in the centre of the Iranian facilities at Natanz, the virus exploited a known security vulnerability of the computer to take control of the plant’s centrifuges. While reporting back to the centre’s control desk that all was well in the system, it secretly sped up the centrifuges to such unprecedented speeds that they started to break. One thousand centrifuges were rendered inoperable before anyone realised something was amiss.

No-one has yet made public how the worm succeeded in reaching the Iranian computers—something it managed to do despite those computers deliberately being isolated from the internet. It is surmised that they entered by first infecting laptops used by technicians that worked there, which were later connected to the main computers during maintenance procedures.

Novelists must obviously know and understand the methods deployed to deliver computer viruses to their target.

DVDThere are frequent cases of industrial espionage, where hackers have succeeded in getting their spying software installed on their victims’ computers. Some years ago, a London couple ran a profitable but illegal business selling trade secrets. Their main tool was a piece of highly sophisticated software (called a Trojan), which they embedded in DVDs containing business proposals, which they mailed to CEOs of a variety of companies. Because their software was so targeted at those individuals, the anti-virus programs failed to detect it, and the CEOs happily inserted the disks into their machines. The Trojan set to work and scanned the companies’ entire computer systems. Anything interesting was copied and sent back to the hackers, who promptly sold them to that company’s competitors.

The modern thriller author must understand these techniques, at least in basic terms, if they are to maintain realism. How? Search internet technology news sites for such stories, and a wealth of real-life examples come to hand from which to copy.

Of-course, Edward Snowden’s leaks have placed details of many high-tech espionage techniques into the public domain, and these can again provide the author with an appreciation of what is currently possible. For example, he leaked information about USBhow the NSA developed an innocent-looking USB lead with a tiny transmitter built into the connector. A spy just needed to break into an office and swap the cable with one already in use (for example to a printer), and they’ve got access to that computer’s data the moment its owner entered their password the next day.

And what about eavesdropping on mobile phone conversations? Although phone tapping isn’t as easy as in the days of copper cable, everyone knows from media reports of phone hacking that it’s possible to intercept cellular phone calls. A common technique is what is known as “man-in-the-middle”, where the spy has equipment that mimics a base station (just google ‘Stingray spy tool’ to discover more). As the victim’s phone comes near, it locks to the spy’s fake base-station’s radio signal rather than the genuine one because it’s stronger. All of the phone’s traffic then passes through the spy’s hands, which he forwards on to the real base-station so that his presence isn’t spotted, while taking a copy for himself. It can even instruct the victim’s phone to reduce the encryption level to make the data easier to decipher.

Accounts of such events are easily available via news articles, and authors should regularly scour such sources.

Next month

In the second blog of this two-part series, we’ll look at what opportunities modern technology brings to fiction storylines.


[i] The Telegraph, 5th July 2013

[ii] Has Modern Technology Killed the Spy Thriller? The Times. July 2014

Photographs ( by: Natalia Pankova, Stefano Barni, Pietro Ricciardi, Chris Cockran, Lotus Head, Nick Benjamisz, Philippe Ramaken, Ryan Bowen, Simon Stratford, Colin Adamson, Matthew Bowden.

About the author

Eavesdrop-cover-squareEavesdrop (originally published by Assent Publishing) is a thriller of assassins, modern-day smugglers, and high-tech spies. Who ruined Customs Investigator James Winter’s career, and what’s their link to a Middle East assassination plot?

Find it on Amazon

More About the Author

What a Half Year!

Wow! The last 6 months have been crazy, so apologies for the lack of solid blog entries for that period. I was made redundant in the summer, and taking up a new job is forcing a house move. My time has been consumed by job hunting while simultaneously completing all the DIY on the house so that it’s in a nice state to sell. That, together with searching for a house to rent while this place is being sold, arranging a new school for my daughter, and generally getting ready for the new job has left little time for writing, let alone for my blog.

real estate and moving icons se

The future should stabilize soon, though, giving me the necessary time to commit to these entries. I’m hoping to be back to normal soon with a blog on writers who use pen and paper rather than computer or tablet. I’m itching to getting back to the research for it; it’s proving fascinating.

By iancoatesthrillers Tagged

Free Paperback Giveaway

Goodreads are hosting a giveaway competition of one paperback edition of the thriller Eavesdrop for UK readers. Great chance to face its assassins, high-tech spies and modern-day smugglers for free. It’s been gathering some great reviews on Amazon – comments like “couldn’t put it down” and “past-paced.”

Smuggling and industrial sabotage leave Customs Investigator James Winter’s career in tatters.  Who arranged his dismissal, and what’s their link to Middle East Assassins? 

Enter here at Goodreads:

By iancoatesthrillers

The James Bonds Gadgets – Fact or Fiction?

However much one might question the lack of realism in the Bond films, a surprising number of 007’s gadgets have their roots in reality. In this month’s blog, we’ll take a quick look at some of them and examine the science behind such gizmos.

To See Through Walls

For instance, wouldn’t we all love Bond’s x-ray glasses from The World Is Not Enough? We’re talking here the ability to see through a solid object, of-course, rather than the specific waves of the hospital fracture department. MIT recently demonstrated how to use the reflections from radio signals to achieve ‘x-ray vision’, and such a gadget could soon be on the horizon. In fact, they’ve spun off a new company specifically to engineer it into a real


Fancy Bond’s x-ray specs?

product. The system MIT developed works by beaming weak radio transmissions from an antenna array and recording the resulting jumble of reflections. Powerful software algorithms remove any reflections that come from stationary items to leave behind a picture of anything moving, however slightly. It can detect the motion of a beating heart or breathing lungs in an adjacent room.

It may still be some years before it shrinks to the size of a pair of spectacles because its array of antennas is currently the size of an A4 sheet of paper, and it requires a laptop to run. However, it will no doubt shrink in time—compare the size and weight of the original handheld phone to today’s mobile handset to see how things can improve over a couple of decades.

If you want to learn more, there’s a great description of the system on

To Fly Like Superman

While you’re on the livescience webpage, take a moment to peek at their article on the personal jetpack that’s so reminiscent of Bond’s in Thunderball.  This one is already here and ready to fly. Watch the video of its Australian designer David Mayman flying it round the statue of liberty.

A follow-up version that’s currently under development is touted to be able to hit 100mph. That really must feel like flying with Superman.

Is that a car I see before me?

Of-course, no consideration of 007’s gadgets could be complete without talking about The Cars. How about we start with the Aston Martin Vanquish in Die Another Day, which could become invisible at the touch of its key fob? Although definitely still in its infancy, even this idea has roots in reality.  If you coat one side of an object in a colour display and fix an array of cameras to the reverse side, it’s possible to show on the displays what the camera sees. If done correctly, in theory, the item can seem to disappear because the user sees


A vanishing Vanquish

what is behind the car. That technology is far from being at the state of the James Bond film, of-course – if the person moves, for instance, their angle to the vehicle would not alter as expected, which therefore breaks the illusion. But technology can overcome even that problem by placing a camera facing the person and using advanced imaging software and face-tracking algorithms to adjust what is shown on the display in response to where they are looking and their angle from the hidden vehicle. So, even this Bond car is not without a grain of scientific possibility.

Another 007 vehicle of interest to tech lovers must be the Lotus Esprit in The Spy Who Loved Me, which could convert to a submarine.  Swiss innovation company Rinspeed, apparently inspired by that film, designed the electric powered sQuba concept car, which they presented at the Geneva motor show in 2008. It travels on land, on water, and at up to 10m below the waves. Bond wouldn’t avoid the bad guys using it, though, because its top speed is a mere 70mph on land, dropping to less than a disappointing 4mph on water, and not even 2mph when submerged. And, yes, that is slower than one could swim.


Rinspeed’s sQuba submersible car

Nonetheless, the sQuba shows what’s possible and, if anyone sees a market, engineering time could be invested to improve its racing pedigree.

In case you’re wondering, the prototype was powered underwater by a pair of propellers, with two supplementary water jets to provide manoeuvrability. See their YouTube video for a demonstration. And the cost? This on-off prototype is purported to have set them back $1.5 million. A snip for Q.

And Now the Weapons

Another interesting gadget in The Spy Who Loved Me was the blow-through cigarette that fired a jet of knock-out gas. In real life, a similar technique was used by the Russian assassin Bogdan Stashinsky in 1957, to fire a jet of deadly nerve gas into his victim’s face. At 7 inches long, it was more akin to a cigar than a cigarette, and Stashinksy fired it from inside a rolled newspaper. The downside was an ever-present risk that wind would catch the gas and blow it back into his face, so the assassin had to swallow anti-nerve gas tablets just before putting it into use. Bond was somewhat more fortunate.


cigarettes can kill

While thinking of weapons disguised as cigarettes, we should also consider 007’s cigarette gun from Casino Royale. Tiny weapons disguised as everyday objects such as these have often been favoured by real spies as well as the fictional. For instance, Washington’s Spy Museum displays a KGB-designed lip-stick gun from 1965, and a pistol disguised as a smoker’s pipe from the 1940s.


4.5mm kiss of death?

The lipstick fired a single 4.5mm shot and saw use in East Berlin during the cold war. The tobacco pipe was used by the British Special Forces, and was known to be deadly at short range. Where are such weapons hidden these days, one wonders.

Shedding Light on the Situation

At the other end of the size scale is Goldfinger’s laser cutter, with which he aimed to break into Fort Knox. If was housed in an ambulance and could be elevated to rise out of the roof. That, too, is now a reality. In 2015, Lockheed Martin demonstrated the prototype of a 30kW laser, which was able to disable a small truck in just a few seconds by burning though its


High power Laser

engine manifold from over a mile away. Ouch!

Bloody Nano Robots

To end, let’s go to Spectre, the latest Bond film, and shrink to the size of the smart blood nanotechnology used to track 007’s location. While this is purely fictional (powering such devices to allow them to communicate over large distances isn’t practical), robots small enough to swim in your blood stream do exist. They were invented by a joint team of Swiss and Israeli scientists to help doctors to deliver drugs to precisely the right point in the body. When an oscillating magnetic field is applied, two tiny magnetic  “nano-wires” that make up segment of its body pulsate with it, thereby propelling it slowly through the blood stream.

So, Are They Fact or Fiction?

So not all of Bond’s gadgets are pure fiction, and many of them started life with at least a glimmer of reality. Whether the fiction has inspired engineers to develop matching technology, or whether the writers took the reality and built upon it with their fiction, though, is a totally different question.


By iancoatesthrillers

Only one day to go before Cyber Monday’s special price on the Kindle edition of the thriller Eavesdrop – only 99c during Monday. Meet its assassins, smugglers and high-tech spies.

EavesdropCoverIanLOW res

By iancoatesthrillers

Competition News

Congratulations to Jason from Bournemouth, England, who won the autumn free prize draw for a paperback copy of the thriller, Eavesdrop by Ian Coates.

By iancoatesthrillers

A Potted History of the Assassin’s Trade

What would you buy with £15,000? A new car? Fit a conservatory, perhaps, or a new kitchen? Or how about hiring an assassin? That’s what a recent study from the University of Birmingham revealed was the average cost of hiring a hit man in Britain. They found quite a spread of charges, though, from a bargain £200 up to a staggering £100,000 for the most expensive (the 1994 Hertfordshire murder of Robert Magill).

The Distant Sniper

Not surprisingly, the study found that the favourite method of dispatch was to use a gun, but unlike the picture portrayed by films and novels, in most cases this is a handgun used in a public place, and not a sniper’s rifle from a distant roof.


The sniper rifle certainly does have its place, however, but that’s more on the modern battlefield than the streets of our “normal” cities. A bullet apparently coming from nowhere to suddenly kill the squaddie next to you is seriously unnerving, so snipers play a key role in destabilizing the enemy during war. And the distances involved can be amazing – a British soldier recently took the world record for a long distance sniper shot during the Afghanistan conflict, when he took out a Taliban gunman at a distance of 8,120 feet – that’s over a mile and a half!

The problem for the sniper in being that far away, of-course, is simply how long it takes the bullet to travel the distance.  Even at 3000 feet per second, a bullet can take well over two seconds to reach its target, in which time the intended victim could have moved. And the wind as well can send a bullet off course over that distance. That’s where the latest research by America’s DARPA comes in – enter the laser-guided sniper bullet with its tiny fins that allow it to alter direction during flight. The DARPA website has a video tracing the bullets’ flights, and it’s amazing to see how much they can alter direction to keep on track towards their victim (see for a simple overview).


But if you don’t have access to an expert sniper or even a modest handgun, there still seems to be plenty of alternative methods with which to bump off your opponent. Poison for instance has often been a favoured tool in the assassin’s armoury. It’s been in use from a few millennia BC right up to the current day, probably remaining popular because it allows the murderer to be elsewhere at the time of death.

Poison in a Teapot

The earliest application of poison was as a means to increase the effectiveness of thrown spears, where the weapon’s tip was used to administer a toxin such as tubocurarine chloride to a distant enemy. By the time we reach the Roman Empire, poisoning had developed into an art form. Nero is even said to have employed his own personal poisoner, who was frequently required to despatch Nero’s relatives with a dose of cyanide. The other clan famous for its adeptness with a vial of poison is, of-course, the 15th century Italian family, the Borgias, with its frequent use of cantarella, a compound historians believe was made from arsenic. The skill with arsenic positioning was to ensure the effect was not immediate and that the symptoms generated could have been caused by one of the many other diseases common to the day. How the Borgias created that compound remains a mystery, although some speculate that they coated dead pigs’ entrails in arsenic and left the poison to be absorbed into the rotting material, after which the resulting liquid was squeezed out and collected.

And poison development continues even today, albeit in a somewhat more scientific way. In 2006, the dissident Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko was assassinated in London while under the protection of MI6.  That event introduced us to the reality of targeted radiation poisoning.

Police believe a does of polonium 210 was slipped into his tea at a Mayfair hotel, probably by Russian FSB agents, who were later named by police but never arrested. It took 23 days for Litvinenko to die – a period in which he would have been in intense pain. And the cost? It’s been estimated that the polonium 210, which can only be formed inside a nuclear reactor, would cost tens of billions of dollars if purchased on the open market – but free if you happen to own a suitable reactor yourself!

Litvinenko was buried in a lead-lined coffin.

A Breath of Cyanide


Methods of administering poison are often a lot more sophisticated than that hotel’s silver teapot, and the peculiar minds who design such weapons have spent much time developing them. The 1978 case of the Bulgarian writer exiled to Britain, Georgi Markov, is one example of this. He was poisoned by a pellet of ricin shot from the tip of an umbrella into his leg while he waited at a bus stop on Waterloo Bridge (a similar umbrella is a morbid but interesting exhibit in Washington’s spy museum– see for details).

The same museum also has a gas gun, a weapon used by the KGB assassin Bogdan Stashinsky in 1957. This consisted of a seven inch metal tube that unscrewed into 3 sections for smuggling to the target’s destination. When assembled and fired, the mechanism broke a capsule of cyanide gas and squirted it into the face of a victim. The gun was designed so that it could be fired from inside a rolled newspaper, so was never seen during the attack.

The benefit of this weapon came from the fact that the detectable presence of cyanide disappeared from the victim’s body within minutes – once fired into their face, their arteries contracted and they died, but everything returned to normal by the time the corpse was examined, and there was no trace of the cyanide because it was breathed rather than ingested. The conclusion: heart failure; death by natural causes.

His victim was Dr Lev Rebet in West Germany. According to, the assassin had to be very careful to avoid the effects of the gas on himself, should any of it blow back at him, and therefore had to take nerve pills, anti-gas pills and a poison antidote immediately before pulling the trigger.

Because the intention was to make the death look like natural causes, users of this weapon were trained never to run from the scene but, if anyone saw them, the assassin was to pretend to help the victim, as though coming to aid of someone suffering a cardiac arrest.

Other victims followed, but this method of murder eventually became too much for Stashinsky, and he fled across Germany to the Western sector just before the Berlin wall was erected, where he surrendered to the Americans. He was sentenced to eight years of hard labour after admitting the assassinations, but was released early for giving the CIA information that helped them solve many other KGB originated murders. He lived in West Germany under a new identity.

Ingenious Designers

So much death, pain and misery has been dished out at the hand of expert assassins.  I can’t help thinking that the undoubtedly ingenious and talented engineers who designed the kinds of weapons we’ve looked at could greatly benefit humanity if only they would turn their skills to the creation of devices that helped mankind rather than killed. However, man’s nature has always had a desire to commit murder, from the days of Cain and Abel to today. Let’s hope that one day a way can be found to stop our natural propensity to want to kill, and to use our engineering talents only for good.

By iancoatesthrillers