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Murder, he ate

When Viktor Yushchenko sat down on Sept. 5 to his bowl of soup at the summer house of the deputy chief of the Ukrainian government's intelligence unit (Ukraine's successor to the old Soviet KGB), he may well have been supping with the devil.

For weeks afterward Yushchenko suffered a bizarre cascade of symptoms _ prostration, crippling abdominal pains, a swollen liver and disfiguring lesions on his upper body and face _ all indicative of a violent internal process that was variously described as an infection (possibly viral, and probably herpes) and gluttony (overindulgence in exotic foods).

Yushchenko gradually recovered enough health to return to his campaign for the presidency of Ukraine, but the man who donned the orange scarf and stepped back up to the microphone had taken on the appearance of a scarred and bloated roue.

And there the matter stayed, until Yushchenko's protestations that he'd been poisoned were finally investigated outside his own country, by a team in a Vienna clinic headed by Dr. Michael Zimpfer. When Zimpfer's findings were made public on Dec. 11, the world sat up and took notice.

The headlines gave us two vital pieces of information: poison, which we all understood, and dioxin. Dioxin? It sounded like some sort of chemical; it even sounded vaguely familiar, like something you'd buy at the plant nursery. As the days passed we read everything we would ever need to know about the properties of dioxin, without discovering the answers to the deeper, more troubling questions of who administered it, and why. Not, why try to hurt Yushchenko, but why use dioxin to do it?

It is curious and unsettling in 2005 to be reading about the attempted assassination by poison of a prominent political figure. Murder by poison has largely been relegated to the history pages, principally because science has overtaken the great advantage that the poisoner of old had over his pursuers: the ability to hide his work beneath the normal calamities that afflict human life.

Death by degrees of pain and wasting could (particularly in the 19th century) be laid at the door of organic disease, and there were few if any tests for the suspicion of poison. In the 21st century the game is desperately hard to play, unless, as in Yushchenko's case, you apply the first rule of the old poisoners' handbook. Choose a substance that nobody can identify. Find an obscure environmental pollutant that infects the air around smelting and recycling plants and concentrate it into a small vial.

Poisoning is not an amateur's game. There is art and a good deal of cunning to perfect before one can claim admission to the guild. Graduates of the old poisoning schools grappled with the same compounding problems as modern chemists and apprentice chefs in five-star hotels. Will the powder mix with the liquid? Will the oil separate into a greasy film? Have I cloaked the telltale smell under enough aromatic spices? And what about the taste?

Our senses are not trained to discriminate what is hidden under camouflage. Studying the contents of your plate looking for odd colors has never been a reliable gauge of what is normal. Arsenic, for instance, is red, yellow, green or white depending on its chemical bedfellow. And what of poison's smell? Prussic acid smells like almonds, hemlock smells like a family of mice, oleander like chocolate, and arsenic in cocoa like supper on a cold night: There are no reliable pocket guides to assist the novice. To his wife, dioxin smelled like "some kind of medicine" on Yushchenko's lips.

Poisoning is an up close and personal crime. The victim is deceived into swallowing a toxic dose concealed in a benign carrier like food or drink, thereby betraying one of the foundations of all social dealings between fellow humans: the assumption of benign intent.

In Ukraine, the rules of hospitality demand that the guest eat and drink heartily at the host's table, even when he suspects the host of ill intent.

As a matter of course in an earlier century, Yushchenko might have taken his own poison-taster to the dinner party at the dacha. Poison-tasters trained their wizard eyes on every stage of meal preparation, following each dish from kitchen to table to mouth _ sometimes adding a little theater to their performance by the application of crystals and feathers, but, in essence, using the highest acuity of their native senses.

I have in my own collection a poisoner's ring, which is hinged on one side and has a hollow compartment concealed under a large amethyst. With practice I have perfected a party trick of dropping a small piece of fizzing vitamin tablet into my dining partner's wine glass. It is surprisingly easy to distract someone long enough to flip the hinge, let the sliver fall and watch until the bubbles subside. How simple was it, one wonders, to slip dioxin, which is easily absorbed in fat, into the jug of cream destined for Yushchenko's soup, or, stealing from a later chapter of the poisoner's handbook, to coat his spoon, or plate, with an invisible layer of chemical?

A chemist at University College, London, wondered why a peculiar substance like dioxin was chosen in the first place. "If you really want to kill someone you use cyanide or ricin or strychnine," wrote Dr. Andrea Sella in The New "If you use something weird I guess it's just that much harder to find."

Why indeed? Cyanide, strychnine, arsenic and the extensive pharmacopeia of the plant and serpent kingdoms have provided the staples for poisonous intent for centuries. Cleopatra was an adept at empirical studies into the effects of snakebite on slaves. She is said to have found the mineral poisons too slow and too liable to cause grimacing and color changes in the corpse.

Other prominent poisoners, like Madeleine d'Aubray (the Marquise de Brinvilliers), and the unknown visitor to Napoleon's exile on Elba, have found arsenic perfectly suited to their plans. The marquise took quite a shine to the poisoning art and, after practicing on charity patients at the poor hospital, endowed arsenic with its cynical alias "inheritance powder" (poudre de succession) when she fed her father and brothers her special soup.

And here we circle back to the question, Why use dioxin? There are many ways to classify poison. Arsenic and hemlock, for instance, are slow killers; they take their own terrible time. Cyanide and strychnine are quick though not merciful. Dioxin, we discover, is a slow accumulative poison, expressing its mauling effect on human physiology over months, years, perhaps a lifetime.

What if the intention was not to kill Yushchenko but to injure him in ways that mimic a fall from grace, like superimposing the ruined face of an alcoholic onto a once handsome man? This is a glimpse, I suspect, into the secret world of chemical warfare, the successor to the old poisoners' guild, and even, perhaps, a peep behind the shreds of the Iron Curtain. Steady doses of dioxin cause cancer and premature aging.

Dioxin, then, seems tailor-made to topple an Adonis from his plinth, which, for someone in the public eye is a kind of death. The sweet twist of this unhappy business is that the plot has been exposed. Yushchenko's face will heal with time. The same cannot be said for the disfigured mind that brought poison to the table.

Gail Bell, a pharmacist, is the author of Poison: A History and a Family Memoir.