by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason, Dial Press, publisher, a division of Random House, 368 pp
2004 Julia Sneden for SeniorWomenWeb
The Rule of Four has been touted as ...”the ultimate puzzle book” by The New York Times Book Review, and compared to The DaVinci Code by many other reviewers. Written by two men who graduated from, respectively, Princeton and Harvard in 1998, the book is a remarkable accomplishment for such young authors.
That said, it must be admitted that their youth and inexperience does show in both plot and writing. Their prose is at times awkward, and, rather surprisingly for college students, a quotation from Hamlet: “But then, madness in great ones must not unwatched go,” is used without quotation marks or attribution. The characters, while fully dimensional, seem rather clichéd. The villain, for instance, is an unpleasant alcoholic, and so heavy-handed that one wonders why any college would allow him near students.
While the authors’ erudition is truly impressive, the plot itself offers us good guys (students) and bad guys (faculty and graduate student) who seem to personify the rumors that always circulate in undergraduate dorms, i.e. that the older generation can’t be trusted, and that failed scholars are eager to rip off the ideas of their brilliant students. As one who was reared on university campuses, I feel constrained to point out that I have known far more examples of kindness and generosity on the part of faculty mentors, than abuse of their powers. But then, kindness and generosity don’t make nearly as lively a mystery as greed and deceit, and The Rule of Four is, after all a novel.
The story, or as much of it as a reviewer should reveal, revolves around a fifteenth century book, The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which has puzzled scholars for the ensuing five hundred years. Thomas, the narrator of The Rule of Four, is the son of a Renaissance scholar who was utterly subsumed in his quest to understand the book before his death in an automobile accident that also shattered Thomas’s leg.
At Princeton, Thomas is befriended by Paul, an orphan whose fascination with The Hypnerotomachia has made him a devotee of the work that Thomas’s father did on the puzzle. The boys become roommates, along with Gil, the son of a Manhattan banker, and Charlie, a black pre-med student who is also an EMT worker in his spare time. Charlie’s medical knowledge serves Paul and Thomas well in their quest to solve the puzzle. The Hypnerotomachia is the subject of Paul’s senior thesis, but he convinces Thomas to work with him to develop and follow the clues from the book. Thomas, however, soon finds himself torn between the all-absorbing puzzles and his girlfriend, Katie, and vows to back away from making the same mistake his father made, i.e. total absorption in the quest, to the detriment of his relationship with his wife and son. The lure of the puzzle, however, keeps drawing Thomas back, and his relationship with Katie teeters back and forth and back again.
The final explosion of all the machinations of corrupt teachers and earnest students should be devastating, but somehow seems curiously flat. And the final chapters offer a denouement that is strangely unsatisfying as well as quite unbelievable.
It may be only my addiction to puzzles and cryptograms that caused me to wish the various clues had been introduced in such a way that the reader could partake a bit more actively in their solutions (there is more than one code involved). But in any event, those solutions are adequately explained, and are indeed fiendishly clever. Anyone trained in the ins and outs of coding and decoding, however, could probably predict at least the method, if not the result (having too little information to reach the latter). Therefore, it seems to me that the entire premise, that no one in five hundred years has been able to crack the codes, seems unlikely. Surely there have been scholars who could read the five-plus languages the author of The Hypnerotomachia used, who would also have access to scholarly (or maybe CIA) treatises on codes?
The Rule of Four is a mildly entertaining book, but not one this reviewer would recommend as an essential addition to your library shelves. — JS