I recently read and reviewed Kate Quinn’s The Rose Code for an upcoming book club Zoom, and at the same time, I was reading David Baldacci’s Simple Genius. I had started Baldacci’s book first, but as I decided to get a jump on my book club reading, I discovered an unexpected connection. Both books feature the mystique of codebreaking and of Bletchley Park, albeit at different times in history. As mentioned in my previous review, The Rose Code takes place at the time that Bletchley Park was active during WWII and its immediate aftermath and provides the reader with riveting historical fiction. Simple Genius doesn’t qualify as historical fiction and is instead a political thriller/murder mystery, the third in Baldacci’s King and Maxwell series.
Published in early 2007, Baldacci continues the adventures of former Secret Service Agents turned private eyes Sean King and Michelle Maxwell. This time they become embroiled in a multiple murder mystery surrounding the clandestine Babbage Town, a scientific encampment housing some of the brightest minds in mathematics and codebreaking. The facility is situated across the river from a CIA installation where something seems amiss. Maxwell is wrestling with serious personal demons, so King starts the case without her. Though not quite back to normal, Maxwell soon joins him as they are thrust into a puzzling morass of spies, geniuses, and an extraordinary little girl whose father had been one of the top scientists at Babbage Town before he was found dead on the beach on CIA grounds in what the authorities initially write off as a suicide. Viggie Turing, the brilliant, autistic daughter of Monk Turing is the key to the mystery, and Michelle is one of the few people who can reach her.
And the connection to The Rose Code? In Simple Genius, Monk Turing is related to Alan Turing, and eventually the professor and Bletchley Park figure into the story. Despite the stories taking place about six decades apart, when reading the two books at the same time there are some intriguing overlaps centered on codebreaking and Alan Turing and his contributions to mathematics and computer science. And of course Babbage Town’s resemblance to a modern day, American version of Bletchley Park is unmistakable.
Stylistically, Simple Genius is typical Baldacci with national security at risk. The characters are relatable, and many are very sympathetic despite various shortcomings. Baldacci handles the psychiatric aspects of the story well overall although a little too neatly at times. The bond Maxwell and Viggie forge through course of the story has appropriate ups and downs given each has trust issues stemming from their personal experiences. Along the way, we learn more about Maxwell’s childhood which is key to her understanding her demons, as well as why the bond between her and King endures against all odds. Like other Baldacci mysteries, the book reads quickly and contains a few credibility leaps that can be forgiven by an engaged reader.