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The Rule of Four

Reviewed: July 25, 2007
By: Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
Publisher: Dell Books
450 pages, $11.99

I have 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 Catholic Church.

As it happens, The Rule of Four does not have a serious religious connection, but it is otherwise squarely within the new paradigm.

The 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.

Wikipedia 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.

Tom, 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.

Harris has his own reasons for studying the book, including the fact the it is the subject of his undergraduate thesis.

Along 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.

We hear 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.

ďLike 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

And then, 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

The 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 progress.

To add 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 15th century.

As the 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.

What 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.

If youíre 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.

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