"It seems with every step we take we get farther away from the truth."
"But then one little piece falls into place and it's off to the races."
This exchange between Michelle Maxwell and attorney Megan Riley occurs midway into David Baldacci's latest effort, THE SIXTH MAN, and is a profoundly accurate depiction of what the reader is in for with this twisting potboiler of a thriller.
The book opens with an anonymous quote: "The only thing potentially worse than not being able to see the forest for the trees is not being able to see the trees because of the forest." This leads deftly into a prologue in which a man named Sohan Sharma is apparently being tortured as he's subjected to sensory overload. Literally millions of images, pictures and numbers are flooding his brain as his head is strapped into an electrode-filled helmet. This attack of information is referred to as the "Wall," and only a handful of human beings have the capacity to turn these sensory images into useable information.
The government will pay handsomely for information like this, as it could represent the ultimate protection in the struggle for national security. Sharma is classified as an E-Five, but even his incredible mental capacity cannot meet the demands that Peter Bunting, his organization and the U.S. government demand from him. The result is that Bunting asks his staff to find him a "Six" --- a being of such incredible brain capacity that the very existence of this person has never been produced. Or has it?
Jumping ahead nine months, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell are on a flight to Portland, Maine. Former government agents now working as private investigators, they have taken on a case of one of Sean's former professors, an attorney named Ted Bergin. Bergin is defending a new client, an accused serial killer named Edgar Roy, who allegedly murdered six innocent people in his barn. Roy is a six-foot-eight gentle giant of a man who barely speaks a word. Unfortunately, Sean and Michelle never get their chance to help out Bergin. On the car ride from the airport, they come across a vehicle stopped on the side of a deserted highway. Inside is Bergin's dead body.
All at once, Sean and Michelle are swept up in events that are far bigger than they ever could have imagined. They reach out to an associate of Bergin's, a young attorney named Megan Riley, and summon her up to Maine. They also visit Roy, who is being held in maximum security at Cutter's Rock penitentiary. After meeting him, they suspect there is a lot more to this man and to Bergin's murder. When a shady federal agent named Murdock tries to railroad Sean and Michelle for Bergin's murder, they realize that there may be very powerful forces that do not want this mystery solved...at any cost.
The novel becomes a roller-coaster ride whereby Baldacci continuously stays three steps ahead of the reader as plot lines are opened and closed with lightning speed and characters/suspects are killed off in shocking ways. Can Sean and Michelle save Roy from execution, avenge the murder of Bergin (among others), and expose the nefarious plot in the upper reaches of the U.S. government before their enemies can silence them forever? No one comes away unscathed in the explosive finale of this engaging novel.
David Baldacci has begun to churn out consistently first-class thrillers at a seemingly record pace over the past few years. Unlike other authors who are just as prolific but whose work ultimately suffers from overexposure, Baldacci's ideas and stories have remained undiluted. THE SIXTH MAN may be the best entry yet in the Sean King/Michelle Maxwell series, and he continues to keep a keen watch on the inner workings of the modern U.S. government.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on April 25, 2011