The Rule of Four, a debut novel by recent Ivy League grads Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, is comparable to numerous recently published thrillers (Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, Leslie Silbert's The Intelligencer, Lev Grossman's Codex, etc.) in which protagonists are put in mortal danger while trying to unravel cryptic secrets hidden in ancient texts. It would be an injustice, however, to categorize this novel as typical bibliophilic suspense. The Rule of Four is much more than that it's a masterfully complicated mystery, a powerfully touching romance and a cultural account of the Renaissance, as well as a bittersweet coming-of-age story about college seniors coming to grips with the "adult" world.
Tom Sullivan and Paul Harris are students at Princeton University. Paul enlists Tom's help in researching his senior thesis on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a real-life, renowned, shelf-bending Renaissance manuscript attributed to an enigmatic Italian nobleman. Written in seven languages with gruesome illustrations, Hypnerotomachia has mystified academics for more than five centuries. Tom, whose late father was a scholar obsessed with the text, finds that he, too, is drawn to its tantalizing secrets. What he and Paul discover is a revelation so incredible some would murder to possess it.
Readers who enjoy cipher-powered story lines will delight in Caldwell and Thomason's acrostics, anagrams, riddles and polyalphabetic cryptography. But this novel is ultimately powered by the deep relationships between the handful of protagonists, and the things they will do to sustain their friendship. The theme of responsibility increasingly prominent as the seniors near graduation (and potential incarceration) is epitomized by a professor's remark about writing the senior thesis: it's about shouldering something so big, you can't get out from under it.
Riveting, poignant and intensely intimate, The Rule of Four is a thinking person's thriller of the highest order.
Paul Goat Allen is a freelance editor and writer living in Syracuse, New York.