Simple Genius by David Baladacci marks the return of dynamic duo Sean King and Michelle Maxwell in a twisting plot involving codes, code breaking, the CIA’s possible involvement in drug smuggling, the war on terrorism, two murders made to look like suicides, and hidden secrets from Michelle’s (Mick’s) troubled past. Last seen in Split Second (2003), the former Secret Service agents turned private investigators have their hands full in this thriller, especially when everything points to a cover-up by the “good guys” at Virginia’s ultra-clandestine Camp Perry and Babbagetown. Though not as good as Baldacci’s Camel Club or Split Second, it’s still an enjoyable book to listen to on CD.
Michelle Maxwell picks a fight with a serviceman in a bar, kicking and beating him almost to death. But she allows the man just enough breathing room to fight back, as if she has a death wish and wants him to put an end to her life and the psychological TNT of secrets from the past deeply hidden within her subconscious. Recovering from her injuries in the hospital, with the serviceman threatening to sue her, her friend Sean King comes to the rescue. He gives the man $10,000 of his own money to prevent him from trying to get any more from Michelle and asks her to voluntarily admit herself to a psychiatric institution.
Horatio Barne, Sean’s friend and Michelle’s psychoanalyst, becomes a fairly major character in the novel. He eventually learns that Michelle experienced something very traumatic when she was six years old, but she can’t remember what it was - only that it involved rose bushes her father planted for his anniversary being destroyed. Horatio believes that if Michelle doesn’t come to terms with whatever happened, she might freak out at the most inopportune moment, possibly becoming unreliable and/or violent when Sean may depend upon her most.
Fear not, though - Michelle takes a very active part in the book’s action despite trying to deal with her psychological issues. When she figures out that an attendant who works at the institution has been stealing drugs from it and selling them, she informs the police, beats him up, and checks herself out. She thinks she’s doing better and can cope with the turmoil building inside her despite Horatio’s concerns to the contrary, and she does do a good job of helping Sean, though her psychological issues have not really been resolved yet at all.
Michelle’s problems are really a subplot for the main storyline. Sean takes a job offered by another friend, Joan Dillinger, to investigate the apparent suicide of Monk Turning, who worked at Babbagetown. Monk and others there have been working on a quantum physics-based computer that, when perfected, will revolutionize the world in untold ways, whether for the better or worse. It would be much faster and smaller than any existing computers, able to do many computations simultaneously.
The case leads Sean and Michelle in many directions, including their attempt to unravel the role of Monk’s seemingly autistic daughter, Vigie, a piano-playing genius, in solving the mystery. What does she mean when she yells out “Blood and codes! Blood and codes!”? Is a song she plays on the piano, “Shenandoah,” some sort of clue? Does her temporary guardian, the one-legged Alicia Caldwell, know more than she lets on?
To get to the answers to the questions they seek, to discover who is responsible for two deaths in Simple Genius, Sean and Michelle have to break into Camp Perry itself. There are rumors it’s being used as a place to interrogate Arabian terrorists. Flights come and go with enough frequency that the duo and the townspeople know that something is definitely happening there, but what? What does it have to do with Internet encryption and the famous WWII Enigma Code?
I’d recommend Simple Genius to anyone who likes the mystery/thriller genre. Ron McLarty does best with the male voices. The female voices, particularly those of Michelle, Vigie, and a Southern woman Hazel Rose who helps Horatio learn what traumatized Michelle, would have been more realistic and brought the story to life better if females had voiced those roles. Still, McLarty does a yeoman’s job, and Simple Genius would be a nice addition to the books-on-audio library of any mystery lover. I particularly appreciate the fact that included as a bonus feature on the last CD are maps and parts of the Beale Code that have been figured out, so that any would-be treasure hunters in the family can try their luck at discovering where twenty million dollars’ worth of treasure might be hidden.