The Rule of Four
Reviewed: July 25, 2007
By: Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
Publisher: Dell Books
450 pages, $11.99
mentioned previously that Dan Brown seems to have started a trend in suspense
novels. Time was that writers in this genre contented themselves with warmed
over Nazi plots and secret societies. Now the vogue is for academic puzzles
that may or may not involve a dire secret hidden for centuries b the Roman
As it happens,
The Rule of Four does not have a serious religious connection, but it is
otherwise squarely within the new paradigm.
novel is set in 1999, at Princeton University and involves the adventures of
four young men who are caught up in the attempt to solve the mystery of the
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream), a five
hundred year old Renaissance text written by one Francesco Colonna.
has an extensive entry on the book itself, which I rather wish I had read before
or while I was reading this novel, but I was convinced that the writers had
made the whole thing up, like H.P. Lovecraftís Necronomicon, and so I never
bothered to look.
Paul, Charlie and Gil are in their final year at college. Tom Sullivan is the
son of a professor who spent his career working on the mysteries of the
Hypnerotomachia. Tom had resolved to stay clear of the thing, but itís caught
him anyway. He finds it an obsession that gets in the way of all his
relationships except that with Paul Harris.
has his own reasons for studying the book, including the fact the it is the
subject of his undergraduate thesis.
with them are Gil, the son of a wealthy east coast family, and Charlie, who
acts as a kind of parent figure to his three roommates.
the story from Tom, who fills us in on a lot of the background, including his
fatherís career, boyhood travels, and some of the important relationships among
the older generation of scholars who have also been fascinated by this book.
The tone is captured in the prologue.
many of us, I think, my father spent the measure of his life piecing together a
story he could never understand. That story began almost five centuries before
I left for college, and ended long after he died.Ē
the typical judgment of a son on a life he doesnít understand: ď I never made
much of his beliefs. A son is a promise that time makes to a man, the guarantee
every father receives that whatever he holds dear will someday be considered
foolish, and that the person he loves best in the world will misunderstand him.Ē
four friendsí quest seldom them takes them far from the environs of the
university - though they do spend some time in the sewers - for this mystery is
mostly about decoding the allegory in the book. It contains anagrams, ciphers,
complex metaphors and all sorts of references to contemporary artwork and city
plans that have to be worked out. Tomís struggle involves running up against a
great many intellectual dead ends and then suddenly gaining an intuitive
insight which unlocks part of the puzzle and allows him and Paul to make
an edge to the search, it emerges that Tom and Paul are not the only ones on
the quest, and that some older scholars are using their fresh minds for their
own ends, hoping to beat the young men to the solution. Their belief is that
the book, which purports to be a love story about a young man seeking his heartís
desire, is really about something else entirely. They are hoping to find the
key to unlock a hidden treasure of paintings, books and other other artwork
that was concealed during the purges of Savonarola in Florence during the late
story progresses, it appears the young men are trapped in a web of conspiracy
woven by one of the older men, who will not stop even at murder to achieve his
ends. How it all works out is something I should leave it to you to discover.
was surprising about this book is not that it dragged a bit in some places, but
how often it didnít. Caldwell and Thompson managed to make the puzzle
accessible and interesting without having to resort to the chase and stalker
scenarios that dominated The Da Vinci Code.
expecting a lot of action, this isnít a book for you, but if you like to have
your brain teased a bit, you might enjoy it.