Synopses & Reviews
An ivy league murder, a mysterious coded manuscript, and the secrets of a Renaissance prince collide memorably in The Rule of Four
a brilliant work of fiction that weaves together suspense and scholarship, high art and unimaginable treachery.
It's Easter at Princeton. Seniors are scrambling to finish their theses. And two students, Tom Sullivan and Paul Harris, are a hair's breadth from solving the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili a renowned text attributed to an Italian nobleman, a work that has baffled scholars since its publication in 1499. For Tom, their research has been a link to his family's past and an obstacle to the woman he loves. For Paul, it has become an obsession, the very reason for living. But as their deadline looms, research has stalled until a long-lost diary surfaces with a vital clue. And when a fellow researcher is murdered just hours later, Tom and Paul realize that they are not the first to glimpse the Hypnerotomachia's secrets.
Suddenly the stakes are raised, and as the two friends sift through the codes and riddles at the heart of the text, they are beginnning to see the manuscript in a new light not simply as a story of faith, eroticism and pedantry, but as a bizarre, coded mathematical maze. And as they come closer and closer to deciphering the final puzzle of a book that has shattered careers, friendships and families, they know that their own lives are in mortal danger. Because at least one person has been killed for knowing too much. And they know even more.
From the streets of fifteenth-century Rome to the rarified realm of the Ivy League, from a shocking 500 year-old murder scene to the drama of a young man's coming of age, The Rule of Four takes us on an entertaining, illuminating tour of history as it builds to a pinnacle of nearly unbearable suspense.
"Caldwell and Thomason's intriguing intellectual suspense novel stars four brainy roommates at Princeton, two of whom have links to a mysterious 15th-century manuscript, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This rare text (a real book) contains embedded codes revealing the location of a buried Roman treasure. Comparisons to The Da Vinci Code are inevitable, but Caldwell and Thomason's book is the more cerebral and better written of the two: think Dan Brown by way of Donna Tartt and Umberto Eco. The four seniors are Tom Sullivan, Paul Harris, Charlie Freeman and Gil Rankin. Tom, the narrator, is the son of a Renaissance scholar who spent his life studying the ancient book, 'an encyclopedia masquerading as a novel, a dissertation on everything from architecture to zoology.' The manuscript is also an endless source of fascination for Paul, who sees it as 'a siren, a fetching song on a distant shore, all claws and clutches in person. You court her at your risk.' This debut novel's range of topics almost rivals the Hypnerotomachia's itself, including etymology, Renaissance art and architecture, Princeton eating clubs, friendship, steganography (riddles) and self-interpreting manuscripts. It's a complicated, intricate and sometimes difficult read, but that's the point and the pleasure. There are murders, romances, dangers and detection, and by the end the heroes are in a race not only to solve the puzzle, but also to stay alive. Readers might be tempted to buy their own copy of the Hypnerotomachia and have a go at the puzzle. After all, Caldwell and Thomason have done most of the heavy deciphering all that's left is to solve the final riddle, head for Rome and start digging. Agent, Nicholas Ellison. (May 4) Forecast:You don't have to be an expert at decoding to see that an excellent cover, high production values throughout, a gripping story, a strong publisher push and reader interest still stirred up by The Da Vinci Code will add up to big numbers for this one." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A]n astonishingly good debut....Scholarship as romance: intricate, erudite, and intensely pleasurable." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"The Rule of Four is an extremely erudite thriller....This fussier but also ingenious novel aspires to out-anagram, out-acrostic and out-cipher-text [The Da Vinci Code]." Janet Maslin, The New York Times
"An impressive debut, a coming-of-age novel in the guise of a thriller." Booklist
"[A] truly satisfying literary thriller....The novel has a darkness that recalls Umberto Eco's monastery thriller, The Name of the Rose, and twinges of Donna Tartt's debut novel set in a boarding school, Secret History." The New York Post
"As much a blazingly good yarn as it is an exceptional piece of scholarship...a smart, swift, multitextured tale that both entertains and informs." San Francisco Chronicle
"Profoundly erudite and far less windy than The Da Vinci Code this is the ultimate puzzle-book for anyone who dares to solve a geometric problem like 'How many arms from your feet to the horizon?' by consulting Curious George." Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
"Riveting, poignant, and intensely intimate, The Rule of Four is a thinking person's thriller of the highest order." BookPage
"This debut packs all the esoteric information of The Da Vinci Code but with lovely writing reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History...a compulsively readable novel." People (Critic's Choice)
"Caldwell and Thomason have created a stunning first novel; a perfect blend of suspense and a sensitive coming-of-age story. If Scott Fitzgerald, Umberto Eco, and Dan Brown teamed up to write a novel, the result would be The Rule of Four. An extraordinary and brilliant accomplishment; a must read." Nelson DeMille, author of Up Country and The General's Daughter
"[A]n unusual hybrid of adventure story and college novel....[The protagonist's introspection is] subtle...and one of the reasons this odd book is interesting beyond its plot and puzzles. Another reason is patches of excellent writing." Washington Post Book World
"As a thriller, The Rule of Four is a lively read, with all the mechanics whirring nicely in place....[It] survives solely on its plot. Is the mystery solved in satisfactory fashion? Sure." Boston Globe
"The Rule of Four is more intellectually satisfying than emotionally titillating. It's perfect beach reading for Princetonians, would-be Renaissance scholars and all who are looking to absorb some of the authors' awesome erudition." USA Today
"The book's current-day plot is deflated by the flatness of the characters: It's hard to care about the lifeless college lads or the purported villains..." The Oregonian (Portland, OR)
"The Rule of Four is more literary in tone than [The Da Vinci Code], but Caldwell-Thomason's story often sinks into clumsy side episodes that make it difficult for readers to remember where the main story line left off." San Antonio Express-News
"[A]n unusually intelligent thriller, one that mixes action with unlocking the riddles of an enigmatic text....Caldwell and Thomason capture the worry about leaving the comfort of college to head into an unknown future..." Denver Post
"If you loved The Da Vinci Code but winced at Dan Brown's cheesy writing, pick up a copy of The Rule of Four....[A] charming and compulsively readable novel..." Orlando Sentinel
When a long-lost diary surfaces, it seems Tom Sullivan and Paul Harris have found the key to a secret labyrinth. However, when a fellow researcher is murdered only hours after their find, the friends suddenly realize that they are caught in a web of great danger.
A stunning first novel in the vein of Umberto Ecco and Dan Brown. Two friends find the key to the labyrinth that holds the secrets of an ancient text called the Hypnerotomachia. But when a fellow researcher is murdered, they suddenly realize they are caught in a web of great danger.
About the Author
Ian Caldwell attended Princeton University, where he studied history. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1998.
Dustin Thomason attended Harvard University, where he studied anthropology and medicine. He won the Hoopes Prize for undergraduate writing, and graduated in 1998. Thomason also received his M.D. and MBA from Columbia University in 2003.
A Conversation with Ian Caldwell
and Dustin Thomason,
authors of the debut novel
The Rule of Four
The novel centers on a real Renaissance text, The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a book that is fairly obscure. Explain how you discovered this book and why you choose to develop your story around it.
We owe it to a Princeton seminar entitled “Renaissance Art, Science, and Magic.” Ian’s final paper for the seminar dealt with a 1499 text entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, one of the most beautiful and valuable books of early Western printing, and one that has divided scholars for years over its meaning and the identity of its author. By the time the research paper was finished, we were already planning to spend the summer writing an intellectual suspense novel together. The mystery of the Hypnerotomachia supplied a perfect starting point, and before long we had hatched a “solution” to the book’s mystery that became the centerpiece of the plot.
You seamlessly blend fact and fiction throughout the novel. For example, Savonarola is a real historical figure, about whom much is known, but what of Francesco Colonna, the author of the Hypnerotomachia? How much is really known about him and how fact-based is your portrait of him?
Oddly enough, scholars don’t even agree that the author of the book was Francesco Colonna, despite the internal evidence of the text that he was. As many “alternate” authors have been proposed for the Hypnerotomachia as have been proposed for Shakespeare’s plays. To further complicate matters, there are actually two Francesco Colonnas who may have written the book, and both are shadowy figures. One was a Dominican monk in Venice, about whom scattered Church records remain. The other was from the powerful Colonna dynasty in Rome, and though much is known about other members of his family, relatively little is known about Francesco. The Rule of Four tries to remain as faithful as possible to the biographies of the contending Francescos, but once Tom and Paul begin to decipher the Hypnerotomachia, they discover a (fictional) side to the Roman Francesco Colonna that no one had previously known.
Are secret codes really buried in the text of the Hypnerotomachia?
Yes. The disagreement among scholars is simply, "how many?" One of the Hypnerotomachia’s mysteries is that its author never explicitly gives his name, but his identity seems to be revealed when the first letter of every chapter is connected to the next: the letters form the Latin message “Poliam Frater Franciscus Columna Peramavit,” meaning “Brother Francesco Colonna Loved Polia Tremendously.” (Polia is the name of the main female character in the Hypnerotomachia.) In addition to this hidden acrostic message, the entire text of the book is written in a hybrid of languages that was considered gratuitously complex even in its own day. When these facts are combined with the strangeness of certain elements in the story—the detailed attention to the dimensions and features of buildings the protagonist sees, not to mention the protagonist’s sexual feelings toward those buildings—it’s easy to see why some readers believe there must be a hidden subtext.
What is a Rule of Four?
When Tom and Paul decipher the Hypnerotomachia, they find that the author, Francesco Colonna, refers to a “Rule of Four” that will be necessary to unlock the final portion of the text. The Rule appears to be related to a set of four cardinal directions and distances found in a diary that surfaces at the beginning of the novel. But Tom and Paul struggle to understand how Francesco Colonna intended the Rule to be used. In a different sense, the title The Rule of Four alludes to the friendship of the novel’s four protagonists as they enter their final days of college together.
The novel is about art, history, religion and scholarship, but it’s also very much about friendship. Explain.
In a more transparent way than the Hypnerotomachia itself, The Rule of Four uses academic disciplines and scholarly obsession as vehicles to explore human relationships. If the backbone of the novel is the deciphering of the Hypnerotomachia, then the novel’s soul is the story of friends and lovers coming to terms with the end of innocence. The Renaissance text is sometimes a mirror, and sometimes a foil, for the decisions and changes that accompany the approach of adult life.
Dustin, you’re a trained physician and Ian you’re a historian, why write a novel? And why together?
Out of consideration to real physicians and real historians, we’re actually just two writers who’ve had to spend the past few years wearing different hats. In fact, when we began The Rule of Four we were just two college grads who decided the first thing we wanted to do in the “real world”—before we had to tackle jobs and medical school—was satisfy a lifelong itch to write. We caught the bug when we met as eight-year-olds, and in the fourteen years that followed, we got used to being co-authors, whether of third-grade class plays or of high-school graduation speeches. Writing—and writing together—just seemed natural. If it hadn’t, we couldn’t have stuck with The Rule of Four for six years.
Explain the joint writing process.
It’s changed more than once since we began writing The Rule of Four in 1998. These days we brainstorm ideas, scene structures, and character arcs together over the phone; then one of us drafts a chapter and emails it to the other, who revises it. Other than the first three months after graduation, when we wrote side-by-side in Ian’s parents’ basement, we’ve spent the past six years hundreds of miles apart, relying heavily on phone calls and emails to make co-writing possible.
In a starred review, Publishers Weekly said about your novel “think Dan Brown by way of Donna Tartt and Umberto Eco.” How do you feel about this comparison?
We’d be lying if we said we weren’t thrilled; it’s hard to think of better company. The Da Vinci Code wasn’t published until after we’d finished The Rule of Four but The Secret History and The Name of the Rose were both inspirations to us back in 1998 when we started writing.
Ian, you went to Princeton and Dustin you went to Harvard. Why did you decide to set the novel at Princeton over Harvard?
At the time, in the wake of movies like Good Will Hunting and With Honors, Harvard seemed overdone. Though we were reading Sylvia Nasar’s book during the summer we began The Rule of Four, we had no idea “A Beautiful Mind” would be made into a film three years later, with Princeton in a starring role. Even if we’d known, though, our decision would’ve been the same. Princeton offered a tradition of undergraduate writing, from Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise to Edmund Wilson’s turn on the staff of the Nassau Literary Review, which gave us hope.
It’s been suggested that most first novels are really thinly veiled autobiography. Is this at all true about The Rule of Four?
Fiction in general seems to be a mixture of autobiography and wish fulfillment, and The Rule of Four is no different. In the autobiography category we would place many of the cosmetic details of life at Princeton, much of the research into the Hypnerotomachia, and the underlying preoccupation with friendship and love. In the wish-fulfillment category we would place writing a senior thesis as groundbreaking as Paul’s, and maybe, on a bad day, wanting a professor or two to turn up dead.
We’re at work on our next co-written book. Now that we’re both able to focus completely on our writing, we look forward to finishing it in a lot less time than The Rule of Four took!