The true story of the umbrella assassin

It still seems like a fictional (and implausible) tale: On September 7, 1978, while waiting for a bus in London, a Bulgarian dissident writer named Georgi Markov (above) was poked in the leg by a man holding an umbrella who mumbled “Sorry,” then walked away. Three days later, Markov was dead.

Secrets of the Dead, the PBS forensic-history series, often takes a too-expansive approach to decoding death (e.g., “Killer Flu”), but the season premiere, “Umbrella Assassin” (airing next Wednesday, October 4), is as well-crafted as the crime itself.

The details of the case, which Secrets reanimates with fresh reporting and interviews, still astound: the umbrella’s “bullet” (a teeny platinum-iridium pellet), the toxin it carried (ricin), the instigator (Bulgarian dictator Todo Zhivkov), the backer (the KGB) — and even the probable assassin, the still-at-large Francesco Giullino, whose name surfaced only last year in leaked Bulgarian government files.

A lot of TV history shows get on our nerves with their sexed-up re-enactments, but Secrets delivers the goods with admirable restraint — and just enough style to do justice to the ultimate true-life James Bond story.

“>VIEW a preview for the “Umbrella Assassin” episode of Secrets of the Dead (click on “Play Video”)

“>CHECK your local PBS listings for “Umbrella Assassin”

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The true story of the umbrella assassin