Published by The Dial Press
Review by W. R. Greer
The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason tries to be many things. It wants to be a murder mystery, an ancient secrets thriller, a coming-of-age novel, a philosophical tome, and an exploration of the academic life. While a laudable goal, it succeeds at some of these better than others. The authors, best friends since they were 8 years old, have graduated from Harvard and Princeton, so they have the experience to accurately convey the atmosphere and lifestyle of an Ivy League education. The Rule of Four is set at Princeton in the spring of 1999, not just the cusp of a new millennium, but the cusp of graduation and adulthood for the four seniors who are the main characters. In the course of one Easter weekend, their lives will be changed forever.
The narrator is Tom Sullivan, an English major whose major decision at the beginning of the novel is whether to accept an slot in graduate school in Chicago or take a position with a dot com company in Texas. Tom is the son of a Renaissance scholar who spent his career, before being killed in an automobile accident, trying to deciper the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii, a 15th-century text written in a variety of languages and said to contain hidden messages and mysteries that have never been solved. It was an obsession that dominated his father's life and one that Tom swore would not involve him. Early in his freshman year at Princeton, Tom met Paul Harris, who knew of Tom's father and wanted to make the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii the center of his studies. Paul's thesis advisor, Vincent Taft, and a friendly patron, Richard Curry, were both friends of Tom's father earlier in their lives, but professional jealousies and competition over the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii caused a fallout between them. During their senior year, Tom found himself sucked into the world surrounding the ancient book, helping Paul solve some of its puzzles before forcing himself to withdraw, fearing it was consuming his life as it did his father's.
The other characters in this novel are Tom's and Paul's other two roommates. Charlie is a large, black, medical student with a heart of gold. Gil is from a privileged background and president of the most prestigious eating club on campus. By senior year the four young men have evolved into a core of good friends ready to do anything to help one another. Katie is Tom's girlfriend, a flawless and beautiful young woman who loves him dearly, but is at wit's end as she fears losing him to the draw of the ancient mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii.
Paul's research of the book is aided by Bill Stein, a graduate student who is more recluse and library researcher than a student. The novel takes place over Easter weekend with Vincent Taft giving a lecture that Friday night on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii. While he's pointing out some of the symbolism and mysteries of the book, his presentation is interrupted by Richard Curry, claiming that Taft stole some of his research material years before. Soon after Bill Stein is murdered. Paul's thesis is thrown into jeopardy, and the innocence of the four roommates' youths are lost forever as events unfold that threaten them all. The search of the secrets of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii has claimed another life and threatens theirs as well, literally as well as figuratively.
The Rule of Four opens with the four young men playing paintball in the tunnels below the Princeton campus, defying college rules in the process. Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason try, at times too obviously, to show the growth of these four from boys to men, and this paintball scene is one of boys will be boys. They are all faced with life-altering choices by the book's end that will show their passage to manhood. As Tom Sullivan relates the story of that fateful weekend, he tells all of their stories to show where they've come from and waxes philosophical about the past and future, love and death, and the meaning of life. As Paul and he uncover more of the secret passages in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphii, they find a similar story in the past. Over 500 years ago, the author of the ancient book struggled with life and death decisions in his attempt to save what was precious to him from a zealot who threatened to destroy it all. Tom and his roommates find they must define what is most precious to each of them and decide what they can save as someone threatens to destroy all they've worked to obtain.
Not only are there parallels between the 15th-century dilemma and the events at Princeton, but with the authors' approach to the novel itself. The Renaissance period contained enormous advances in art, science, literature, architecture, and music. To solve the puzzles, Tom and Paul must be proficient in their knowledge of all these things. The authors work all of these subjects not just into the storyline, but into the young men's histories, suggesting that these are important criteria in the makeup of any person. In an attempt to overcome the negative image of the murder mystery or thriller as being entirely plot-driven books, they've attempted to infuse their novel with fully-developed characters and philosophical musings as well as the arcane knowledge and secrets of the past that have made novels like The Da Vinci Code so popular.
Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason haven't entirely succeeded in this endeavor, probably partly due to the fact that this is their debut novel. At times the four roommates act in stereotypical ways and the drama between them can be seen so far in advance that it loses the suspense of the moment. Other first-time novelist problems crop up here and there with clunky dialogue, an urge to explain too much minutiae of the characters' pasts, and plot devices that just don't ring true. Some may find the description of the privileged life at Princeton interesting, others may be bored by the first half of the novel waiting for the suspense and mysteries to kick into gear.
The second half of the novel reads much quicker than the first, and it's worth wading through the first section to get there. By this time we've come to know Tom and Paul well, they start unraveling the mysteries, and they face harsh realizations where their outer and inner demons lie. While far from a perfect novel, if such a thing exists, The Rule of Four ultimately becomes an entertaining read that will draw you into their world. By the time the ride of suspense is completed at the book's end, it's also succeeded at making the reader think and ponder his decisions in life. The Rule of Four is a worthy addition to anyone's library who appreciates a suspenseful and thought-provoking novel.
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