The Rule of Four

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Overview

A mysterious coded manuscript, a violent Ivy League murder, and the secrets of a Renaissance prince collide in a labyrinth of betrayal, madness, and genius.

THE RULE OF FOUR

Princeton. Good Friday, 1999. On the eve of graduation, two students are a hairsbreadth from solving the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Famous for its hypnotic power over those who study it, the five-hundred-year-old Hypnerotomachia may finally reveal its ...

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The Rule of Four: A Novel

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Overview

A mysterious coded manuscript, a violent Ivy League murder, and the secrets of a Renaissance prince collide in a labyrinth of betrayal, madness, and genius.

THE RULE OF FOUR

Princeton. Good Friday, 1999. On the eve of graduation, two students are a hairsbreadth from solving the mysteries of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Famous for its hypnotic power over those who study it, the five-hundred-year-old Hypnerotomachia may finally reveal its secrets -- to Tom Sullivan, whose father was obsessed with the book, and Paul Harris, whose future depends on it. As the deadline looms, research has stalled -- until an ancient diary surfaces. What Tom and Paul discover inside shocks even them: proof that the location of a hidden crypt has been ciphered within the pages of the obscure Renaissance text.

Armed with this final clue, the two friends delve into the bizarre world of the Hypnerotomachia -- a world of forgotten erudition, strange sexual appetites, and terrible violence. But just as they begin to realize the magnitude of their discovery, Princeton's snowy campus is rocked: a longtime student of the book is murdered, shot dead in the hushed halls of the history department.

A tale of timeless intrigue, dazzling scholarship, and great imaginative power, The Rule of Four is the story of a young man divided between the future's promise and the past's allure, guided only by friendship and love.

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Editorial Reviews

Janet Maslin
The Rule of Four is an extremely erudite thriller set on the Princeton campus and constructed around a famously arcane text from the 15th century … The text is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili; its name means the "struggle for love in a dream" of a man called Poliphilo. This is a name that two of the book's four main collegiate characters have trouble even pronouncing. But readers may want to start dropping it in conversation, as if this were no more difficult than saying Da Vinci Code. This fussier but also ingenious novel aspires to out-anagram, out-acrostic and out-cipher-text that one.


The New York Times
Marilyn Stasio
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.
The New York Times Sunday Book Review
The New Yorker
A Princeton student has only twenty-four hours to complete his senior thesis—hardly the nail-biting stuff of thrillers, except that the thesis in question purports to solve the mystery of an erotic fifteenth-century allegory littered with ciphers and algorithms. (In the wake of the immensely popular “The Da Vinci Code,” there appears to be no shortage of medieval codes waiting to be cracked by intrepid scholar-detectives.) As the student races to meet his deadline, mayhem engulfs the campus: a chase through steam tunnels beneath the grassy quads, an inferno at the school’s toniest eating club, and nude frolics in the snow (this last not fiction but a real Princeton tradition). The authors, two recent Ivy League grads, keep up a frantic, somewhat exhausting pace, but the most riveting action sequences take place inside the mind, as the hero wrestles with the manuscript.
Edward Nawotka
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
Publishers Weekly
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. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A compelling modern thriller that cleverly combines history and mystery. When four Princeton seniors begin the Easter weekend, they are more concerned with their plans for the next year and an upcoming dance than with a 500-year-old literary mystery. But by the end of the holiday, two people are dead, two of the students are injured, and one has disappeared. These events, blended with Renaissance history, code breaking, acrostics, sleuthing, and personal discovery, move the story along at a rapid pace. Tom Sullivan, the narrator, tells of his late father's and then a roommate's obsession with the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a 15th-century "novel" that has long puzzled scholars. Paul has built his senior thesis on an unpopular theory posited by Tom's father-that the author was an upper-class Roman rather than a monk-and has come close to proving it. While much of the material on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is arcane and specialized, it is clearly explained and its puzzles are truly puzzling, while the present-day action is compelling enough to keep teens reading. There is a love interest for Tom and a lively portrayal of Princeton life. This novel will appeal to readers of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday, 2003) but it supplies a lot more food for thought, even including some salacious woodcuts from the original book as well as coded excerpts and their solutions.-Susan H. Woodcock, Fairfax County Public Library, Chantilly, VA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A Renaissance mystery rattles the lives of four Princeton roommates-in an astonishingly good debut by a young team of writers who have put their expensive educations to much better use than classmates who keep screwing up governments. The mystery is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a real Renaissance text that reads like six Handel operas after a bout in the food processor. Narrator Thomas Corelli Sullivan is one of four stout friends and roommates in their last year at Princeton. Before his accidental death, Sullivan's father was himself obsessed by the headbusting puzzles built into the book by its anonymous author, and that obsession, nearly the ruin of his marriage, is now threatening Tom's. Waifish Paul Harris, perhaps the most brilliant of the friends, building on the work of numerous scholars including Tom's late father, has begun to crack the book's codes, and his work has sucked Tom into a world he hoped to avoid. Neglecting his own studies and his immensely attractive girlfriend Katie, Tom lends his own formidable knowledge and intuition to Paul's labors. Their findings seem to bear out the theories for which Tom's father was ridiculed by Vincent Taft, a rival scholar now in residence down the road at the Institute for Advanced Studies, and the authorship seems clearly to have been that of Francesco Colonna, an aristocrat and member of the inner circle of great Florentine humanists. What remains elusive is the great mystery at the center of the text, which has to do with the location and purpose of an immense crypt Colonna had ordered up. Tom emerges from the intellectual hothouse just in time to save his degree and his love life, but Paul charges ahead until he, Tom, and theother two plucky roommates find themselves, without ever leaving Princeton, in extraordinary peril. Academic evil stalks the campus and no one is safe. Scholarship as romance: intricate, erudite, and intensely pleasurable. Agents: Nick Ellison and Jennifer Joel
From the Publisher
“Profoundly erudite . . . the ultimate puzzle-book.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“One part The Da Vinci Code, one part The Name of the Rose and one part A Separate Peace . . . a smart, swift, multitextured tale that both entertains and informs.”—San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Ingenious . . . The real treat here is the process of discovery.”—The New York Times
 
“Compulsively readable.”—People (4 stars)
 
“If F. Scott Fitzgerald, Umberto Eco, and Dan Brown teamed up to write a novel, the result would be The Rule of Four.”—Nelson DeMille
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743540292
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Publication date: 9/10/2004
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 12 CDs, 13 hrs. 30 min.
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 5.88 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason
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.?.

Biography

Virginia natives Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason met at a friend's birthday party when they were eight years old, and they've been co-authors ever since, working up from class plays and commencement speeches to their blockbuster of a debut novel, The Rule of Four.

"We were college seniors who, in a bubble of post-graduation optimism, thought we could write and sell a manuscript in the three months before Dusty went to medical school and Ian went to work at a dot-com company," Caldwell and Thomason explained in a Barnes & Noble interview.

The duo picked out a genre and subject: inspired by Caldwell's seminar at Princeton on "Renaissance Art, Science and Magic," they planned to concoct an intellectual thriller about a mysterious 15th-century text, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (a real book). But the path from first draft to publication was rockier than they anticipated.

"We slaved over the manuscript a good fifty hours a week that entire summer, and at the end of it all we had... nothing," they confessed.

Nothing, that is, but the beginnings of a manuscript that would take nearly six years to write, rewrite and revise before it would be published.

When The Rule of Four finally made it into print, it met with all the success two first-time authors could hope for -- including glowing reviews and chart-topping sales. "Think Dan Brown by way of Donna Tartt and Umberto Eco ," suggested Publishers Weekly.

The same comparisons were repeated by other book reviewers. Like Brown's The DaVinci Code (which hadn't been published when Caldwell and Thomason were writing their novel), The Rule of Four deals with an explosive secret encoded in ancient texts; like Tartt's The Secret History, it takes place at an elite school where scholarly obsessions turn deadly; like Eco's The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, it is packed with historical and literary arcana, "an extremely erudite thriller," as Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times.

Also in the mix are the authors' observations about love, friendship and undergraduate life at Princeton, Caldwell's alma mater. (Thomason graduated from Harvard, and went on to earn his M.D at Columbia University.)

Though comparisons to The DaVinci Code were inevitable, many critics deemed The Rule of Four "better, more difficult and more rewarding" (The Miami Herald). The San Francisco Chronicle called it "As much a blazing good yarn as it is an exceptional piece of scholarship... A smart, swift, multitextured tale that both entertains and informs."

With their first big success under their belts, Caldwell and Thomason have cheerfully abandoned their other possible career paths in order to focus on writing full-time.

"We're working on our next co-written book," they said in an interview on their publisher's Web site. "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!"

Good To Know

In our interview, the authors shared some fun and fascinating facts with us:

Caldwell:

"Dusty and I first met at a friend's birthday party in third grade. Twenty years later, that same friend, Olivier Delfosse, took the author photo that appears on the back cover of The Rule of Four."

"Dusty and I co-wrote the speech he gave at our high school graduation. The last line was: ‘With that, I thank you all for a wonderful four years, wish you Godspeed, and hope to see you in another 40.' And that was one of the good parts."

"Dusty and I were the left halfback/left wing combination on our travel soccer team in high school. The only ‘move' we ever rehearsed involved Dusty jogging backward, seemingly to receive a short throw-in from me, then suddenly turning back and bolting up the field, leaving the defender in his tracks, in order to receive a much longer throw. It sounds more complicated than it was, and it rarely worked."

"Dusty finds this endlessly amusing, but my fiancée and I, after spending four years in southwestern Virginia during her veterinary training and my work on The Rule of Four, are devoted fans of Virginia Tech college football. We've moved east since then, but everything in our household -- even writing -- still comes to a stop when the Hokies take the field."

Thomason:

"Ian and I have been writing together since we were kids. In the seventh grade, we co-wrote a spoofy musical number for a teacher's retirement party. I had done a Roger Daltrey turn at that year's talent show (our algebra teacher was a Who fanatic with a garage band but needed a singer), so for the retirement party, I sang and Ian was the piano man. No videotapes exist of this incident."

"I used to be a competitive gymnast, and I was terrified of the high bar."

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    1. Hometown:
      Caldwell: Newport News, Virginia; Thomason: New York, New York
    1. Education:
      Caldwell: B.A., Princeton University, 1998; Thomason: A.B., Harvard College, 1998; M.B.A./M.D., Columbia, 2003
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Strange thing, time. It weighs most on those who have it least. Nothing is lighter than being young with the world on your shoulders; it gives you a feeling of possibility so seductive, you know there must be something more important you could be doing than studying for exams.

I can see myself now, the night it all began. I'm lying back on the old red sofa in our dorm room, wrestling with Pavlov and his dogs in my introductory psychology book, wondering why I never fulfilled my science requirement as a freshman like everyone else. A pair of letters sits on the coffee table in front of me, each containing a vision of what I could be doing next year. The night of Good Friday has fallen, cold April in Princeton, New Jersey, and with only a month of college left I'm no different from anyone else in the class of 1999: I'm having trouble getting my mind off the future.

Charlie is sitting on the floor by the cube refrigerator, playing with the Magnetic Shakespeare someone left in our room last week. The Fitzgerald novel he's supposed to be reading for his final paper in English 151w is spread open on the floor with its spine broken, like a butterfly somebody stepped on, and he's forming and re-forming sentences from magnets with Shakespearean words on them. If you ask him why he's not reading Fitzgerald, he'll grunt and say there's no point. As far as he's concerned, literature is just an educated man's shell game, three-card monte for the college crowd: what you see is never what you get. For a science-minded guy like Charlie, that's the height of perversity. He's headed for medical school in the fall, but the rest of us are still hearing about the C-plus he found on his English midterm in March.

Gil glances over at us and smiles. He's been pretending to study for an economics exam, but Breakfast at Tiffany's is on, and Gil has a thing for old films, especially ones with Audrey Hepburn. His advice to Charlie was simple: if you don't want to read the book, then rent the movie. They'll never know. He's probably right, but Charlie sees something dishonest in that, and anyway it would prevent him from complaining about what a scam literature is, so instead of Daisy Buchanan we're watching Holly Golightly yet again.

I reach down and rearrange some of Charlie's words until the sentence at the top of the fridge says to fail or not to fail: that is the question. Charlie raises his head to give me a disapproving look. Sitting down, he's almost as tall as I am on the couch. When we stand next to each other he looks like Othello on steroids, a two-hundred-and-fifteen-pound black man who scrapes the ceilings at six-and-a-half feet. By contrast I'm five-foot-seven in shoes. Charlie likes to call us Red Giant and White Dwarf, because a red giant is a star that's unusually large and bright, while a white dwarf is small and dense and dull. I have to remind him that Napoleon was only five-foot-two, even if Paul is right that when you convert French feet to English, the emperor was actually taller.

Paul is the only one of us who isn't in the room now. He disappeared earlier in the day, and hasn't been seen since. Things between him and me have been rocky for the past month, and with all the academic pressure on him lately, he's chosen to do most of his studying at Ivy, the eating club where he and Gil are members. It's his senior thesis he's working on, the paper all Princeton undergrads must write in order to graduate. Charlie, Gil, and I would be doing the same ourselves, except that our departmental deadlines have already come and gone. Charlie identified a new protein interaction in certain neuronal signaling pathways; Gil managed something on the ramifications of a flat tax. I pasted mine together at the last minute between applications and interviews, and I'm sure Frankenstein scholarship will forever be the same.

The senior thesis is an institution that almost everyone despises. Alumni talk about their theses wistfully, as if they can't remember anything more enjoyable than writing one-hundred-page research papers while taking classes and choosing their professional futures. In reality, a senior thesis is a miserable, spine-breaking thing to write. It's an introduction to adult life, a sociology professor told Charlie and me once, in that annoying way professors have of lecturing after the lecture is over: it's about shouldering something so big, you can't get out from under it. It's called responsibility, he said. Try it on for size. Never mind that the only thing he was trying on for size was a pretty thesis advisee named Kim Silverman. It was all about responsibility. I'd have to agree with what Charlie said at the time. If Kim Silverman is the sort of thing adults can't get out from under, then sign me up. Otherwise, I'll take my chances being young.

Paul is the last of us to finish his thesis, and there's no question that his will be the best of the bunch. In fact, his may be the best of our entire graduating class, in the history department or any other. The magic of Paul's intelligence is that he has more patience than anyone I've ever met, and with it he simply wears problems down. To count a hundred million stars, he told me once, at the rate of one per second, sounds like a job that no one could possibly complete in a lifetime. In reality, it would only take three years. The key is focus, a willingness not to be distracted. And that is Paul's gift: an intuition of just how much a person can do slowly.

Maybe that's why everyone has such high expectations for his thesis--they know how many stars he could count in three years, but he's been working on his thesis for almost four. While the average student comes up with a research topic in the fall of senior year and finishes it by the next spring, Paul has been struggling with his since freshman year. Just a few months into our first fall semester, he decided to focus on a rare Renaissance text entitled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a labyrinthine name I can pronounce only because my father spent most of his career as a Renaissance historian studying it. Three and a half years later, and barely twenty-four hours from his deadline, Paul has enough material to make even the most discriminating graduate programs salivate.

The problem is, he thinks I ought to be enjoying the fanfare too. We worked on the book together for a few months during the winter, and made good progress as a team. Only then did I understand something my mother used to say: that men in our family had a tendency to fall for certain books about as hard as they fell for certain women. The Hypnerotomachia may never have had much outward charm, but it has an ugly woman's wiles, the slow addictive tug of inner mystery. When I caught myself slipping into it the same way my father had, I managed to pull myself out and throw in the towel before it could ruin my relationship with a girlfriend who deserved better. Since then, things between Paul and me haven't been the same. A graduate student he knows, Bill Stein, has helped with his research since I begged off. Now, as his thesis deadline approaches, Paul has become strangely guarded. He's usually much more forthcoming about his work, but over the past week he's withdrawn not only from me but from Charlie and Gil too, refusing to speak a word of his research to anyone.

"So, which way are you leaning, Tom?" Gil asks.

Charlie glances up from the fridge. "Yeah," he says, "we're all on tenterhooks."

Gil and I groan. Tenterhooks is one of the words Charlie missed on his midterm. He attributed it to Moby-Dick instead of Tobias Smollett's Adventures of Roderick Random on the grounds that it sounded more like a kind of fishing lure than a word for suspense. Now he won't let it go.

"Get over it," Gil says.

"Name me one doctor who knows what a tenterhook is," Charlie says.

Before either of us can answer, a rustling sound comes from inside the bedroom I share with Paul. Suddenly, standing before us at the door, wearing only boxers and a T-shirt, is Paul himself.

"Just one?" he asks, rubbing his eyes. "Tobias Smollett. He was a surgeon."

Charlie glances back at the magnets. "Figures."

Gil chuckles, but says nothing.

"We thought you went to Ivy," Charlie says, when the pause becomes noticeable.

Paul shakes his head, backtracking into his room to pick up his notebook. His straw-colored hair is pressed flat on one side, and there are pillow creases on his face. "Not enough privacy," he says. "I've been working in my bunk again. Fell asleep."

He's hardly gotten a wink in two nights, maybe more. Paul's advisor, Dr. Vincent Taft, has pressed him to produce more and more documentation every week--and unlike most advisors, who are happy to let seniors hang by the rope of their own expectations, Taft has kept a hand at Paul's back from the start.

"So, what about it, Tom?" Gil asks, filling the silence. "What's your decision?"

I glance up at the table. He's talking about the letters in front of me, which I've been eyeing between each sentence in my book. The first letter is from the University of Chicago, offering me admission to a doctoral program in English. Books are in my blood, the same way medical school is in Charlie's, and a Ph.D. from Chicago would suit me just fine. I did have to scrap for the acceptance letter a little more than I wanted to, partly because my grades at Princeton have been middling, but mainly because I don't know exactly what I want to do with myself, and a good graduate program can smell indecision like a dog can smell fear.

"Take the money," Gil says, never taking his eyes off Audrey Hepburn.

Gil is a banker's son from Manhattan. Princeton has never been a destination for him, just a window seat with a view, a stopover on the way to Wall Street. He is a caricature of himself in that respect, and he manages a smile whenever we give him a hard time about it. He'll be smiling all the way to the bank, we know: even Charlie, who's sure to make a small fortune as a doctor, won't hold a candle to the kind of paychecks Gil will see.

"Don't listen to him," Paul says from the other side of the room. "Follow your heart."

I look up, surprised that he's aware of anything but his thesis.

"Follow the money," Gil says, standing up to get a bottle of water from the refrigerator.

"What'd they offer?" Charlie asks, ignoring the magnets for a second.

"Forty-one," Gil guesses, and a few Elizabethan words tumble from the fridge as he closes

it. "Bonus of five. Plus options."

Spring semester is job season, and 1999 is a buyer's market. Forty-one thousand dollars a year is roughly double what I expected to be earning with my lowly English degree, but compared to some of the deals I've seen classmates make, you'd think it was barely getting by.

I pick up the letter from Daedalus, an Internet firm in Austin that claims to have developed the world's most advanced software for streamlining the corporate back office. I know almost nothing about the company, let alone what a back office is, but a friend down the hall suggested I interview with them, and as rumors circulated about high starting salaries at this unknown Texas start-up, I went. Daedalus, following the general trend, didn't care that I knew nothing about them or their business. If I could just solve a few brainteasers at an interview, and seem reasonably articulate and friendly in the process, the job was mine. Thus, in good Caesarian fashion, I could, I did, and it was.

"Close," I say, reading from the letter. "Forty-three thousand a year. Signing bonus of three thousand. Fifteen hundred options."

"And a partridge in a pear tree," Paul adds from across the room. He's the only one acting like it's dirtier to talk about money than it is to touch it. "Vanity of vanities."

Charlie is shifting the magnets again. In a fulminating baritone he imitates the preacher at his church, a tiny black man from Georgia who just finished his degree at the Princeton Theological Seminary. "Vanity of vanities. All is vanities."

"Be honest with yourself, Tom," Paul says impatiently, though he never makes eye contact. "Any company that thinks you deserve a salary like that isn't going to be around for long. You don't even know what they do." He returns to his notebook, scribbling away. Like most prophets, he is fated to be ignored.

Gil keeps his focus on the television, but Charlie looks up, hearing the edge in Paul's voice. He rubs a hand along the stubble on his chin, then says, "All right, everybody stop. I think it's time to let off some steam."

For the first time, Gil turns away from the movie. He must hear what I hear: the faint emphasis on the word steam.

"Right now?" I ask.

Gil looks at his watch, taking to the idea. "We'd be clear for about half an hour," he says, and in a show of support he even turns off the television, letting Audrey fizzle into the tube.

Charlie flips his Fitzgerald shut, mischief stirring. The broken spine springs open in protest, but he tosses the book onto the couch.

"I'm working," Paul objects. "I need to finish this."

He glances at me oddly.

"What?" I ask.

But Paul remains silent.

"What's the problem, girls?" Charlie says impatiently.

"It's still snowing out there," I remind everyone.

The first snowstorm of the year came howling into town today, just when spring seemed perched on the tip of every tree branch. Now there are calls for a foot of accumulation, maybe more. The Easter weekend festivities on campus, which this year include a Good Friday lecture by Paul's thesis advisor, Vincent Taft, have been reorganized. This is hardly the weather for what Charlie has in mind.

"You don't have to meet Curry until 8:30, right?" Gil asks Paul, trying to convince him. "We'll be done by then. You can work more tonight."

Richard Curry, an eccentric former friend of my father's and Taft's, has been a mentor of Paul's since freshman year. He has put Paul in touch with some of the most prominent art historians in the world, and has funded much of Paul's research on the Hypnerotomachia.

Paul weighs his notebook in his hand. Just looking at it, the fatigue returns to his eyes.



Excerpted from The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason Copyright © 2004 by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Excerpted by permission of Dial Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Introduction

THE OFFICIAL RULE OF FOUR READING GROUP GUIDE

These questions, discussion topics and author biography are intended to enhance your group’s reading of The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, a contemporary thriller set in the rarified world of scholarship as much as in the world of centuries-old code-makers, and code-breakers. We hope this guide will add to your enjoyment of this suspenseful and unique debut novel.

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Foreword

1. One of the most unique aspects of this novel is its ability to take the reader directly into the lives of the student-heroes Tom and Paul (as well as Gil and Charlie), and then in a sentence place readers in the middle of Renaissance intrigue. Did you think tensions among the Princeton students and their mentors and rivals mirror those of the men centuries ago protecting the secrets? How were the conflicts similar, or different? Did you find that these character relationships drove the narrative as much as the decoding of the fascinating book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (pronounced Hip-ner-AH-toe-mak-ee-a Poh-LI-fi-ly)?

2. The authors, Caldwell and Thomason, have been close friends since they where eight. Why is this important to the book?

3. What are Tom’s and Paul’s motivation for pursuing the secrets of the Hypnerotomachia? In what way is Tom fulfilling his own needs by alternately obsessing himself with and then ignoring the messages of the text? Did you find the father/son story moving, and in what way do the relationships we have with the people we love or admire drive our ambitions or destroy our dreams? How is Paul different from Tom?

4. In what ways are the worlds of Paul, Tom, Tom’s father, his old colleagues and foes as cut-throat and deadly as that of the anonymous writer of the Hypnerotomachia? How does the conflict of ideas become deadly? Why is the Robert Browning poem entitled “Andrea Del Sarto” that is slightly misquoted by one character, and later referenced by Paul in a critical scene, a statement about motive?

5. After the first death on campus, did you suspect who themurderer was? Where you correct?

6. What part of the code-breaking did you find most interesting? Did you “beat” Paul or Tom to a conclusion as they unraveled some of the mystery? Did you agree with the characters’ conclusions? Could you understand the mesmerizing effect that a book or work of art could have on a person? Have you ever felt this pull? In what way is it exhilarating?

7. Tom’s and Katie’s relationship suffers as the mysteries come to a head. Did this seem natural to you? Did you find the resolution of their relationship realistic?

8. At a critical moment in the novel, Paul says “I don’t want to do this alone.” What does this say about the nature of his specific quest, and intellectual puzzles in general? Why is the sharing of the result so important to him?

9. The action of the novel begins on Good Friday; three days later, on Easter, it ends (saving the postscript). Is this important? What might the authors be saying using this specific timeframe?

10. At the heart of the Hypnerotomachia may be a crusade to save works of art and literature from the ancient, mostly pagan world—a world considered infidel by some of the zealous contemporaries of the anonymous author. Why would the cause have been important? What was at stake? And if such a covert rescue operation had occurred, is it possible that it could have been kept secret for 500 years? How so? If you could uncover something in an undisturbed crypt, hidden away for centuries and untouched, what would you most want to discover?

11. In early praise for THE RULE OF FOUR admirers have compared the authors’ work to that of F.Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, etc.), Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, etc.) Umberto Eco (The Name Of the Rose, etc.) and Donna Tartt (The Secret History, etc.). Are these comparisons apt? How? What other works of suspense and literature did this novel call to your mind? Could you see it as a film?

12. 12) What is THE RULE OF FOUR?




Read More Show Less

Interviews & Essays

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 thebook, 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.

Dusty, 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 Dusty 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.

What's next?

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!
Read More Show Less

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions from the Publisher

THE OFFICIAL RULE OF FOUR READING GROUP GUIDE

These questions, discussion topics and author biography are intended to enhance your group's reading of The Rule Of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason, a contemporary thriller set in the rarified world of scholarship as much as in the world of centuries-old code-makers, and code-breakers. We hope this guide will add to your enjoyment of this suspenseful and unique debut novel.

1. One of the most unique aspects of this novel is its ability to take the reader directly into the lives of the student-heroes Tom and Paul (as well as Gil and Charlie), and then in a sentence place readers in the middle of Renaissance intrigue. Did you think tensions among the Princeton students and their mentors and rivals mirror those of the men centuries ago protecting the secrets? How were the conflicts similar, or different? Did you find that these character relationships drove the narrative as much as the decoding of the fascinating book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (pronounced Hip-ner-AH-toe-mak-ee-a Poh-LI-fi-ly)?

2. The authors, Caldwell and Thomason, have been close friends since they where eight. Why is this important to the book?

3. What are Tom's and Paul's motivation for pursuing the secrets of the Hypnerotomachia? In what way is Tom fulfilling his own needs by alternately obsessing himself with and then ignoring the messages of the text? Did you find the father/son story moving, and in what way do the relationships we have with the people we love or admire drive our ambitions or destroy our dreams? How is Paul different from Tom?

4. In what ways are the worlds of Paul, Tom, Tom's father, his old colleagues and foes as cut-throat and deadly as that of the anonymous writer of the Hypnerotomachia? How does the conflict of ideas become deadly? Why is the Robert Browning poem entitled "Andrea Del Sarto" that is slightly misquoted by one character, and later referenced by Paul in a critical scene, a statement about motive?

5. After the first death on campus, did you suspect who the murderer was? Were you correct?

6. What part of the code-breaking did you find most interesting? Did you "beat" Paul or Tom to a conclusion as they unraveled some of the mystery? Did you agree with the characters' conclusions? Could you understand the mesmerizing effect that a book or work of art could have on a person? Have you ever felt this pull? In what way is it exhilarating?

7. Tom's and Katie's relationship suffers as the mysteries come to a head. Did this seem natural to you? Did you find the resolution of their relationship realistic?

8. At a critical moment in the novel, Paul says "I don't want to do this alone." What does this say about the nature of his specific quest, and intellectual puzzles in general? Why is the sharing of the result so important to him?

9. The action of the novel begins on Good Friday; three days later, on Easter, it ends (saving the postscript). Is this important? What might the authors be saying using this specific timeframe?

10. At the heart of the Hypnerotomachiamay be a crusade to save works of art and literature from the ancient, mostly pagan world-a world considered infidel by some of the zealous contemporaries of the anonymous author. Why would the cause have been important? What was at stake? And if such a covert rescue operation had occurred, is it possible that it could have been kept secret for 500 years? How so? If you could uncover something in an undisturbed crypt, hidden away for centuries and untouched, what would you most want to discover?

11. In early praise for The Rule Of Four admirers have compared the authors' work to that of F.Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby, etc.), Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, etc.) Umberto Eco (The Name Of the Rose, etc.) and Donna Tartt (The Secret History, etc.). Are these comparisons apt? How? What other works of suspense and literature did this novel call to your mind? Could you see it as a film?

12. What is THE RULE OF FOUR?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 294 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(64)

4 Star

(50)

3 Star

(37)

2 Star

(73)

1 Star

(70)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 294 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 31, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This book left me wondering if all those professional reviewers

    This book left me wondering if all those professional reviewers that gave it excellent reviews weren't afraid of being labeled not intellectual enough to "get it." The book is continuously compared to The DaVinci Code, but while Dan Brown's book may not have been a literary masterpiece, it was fun. The Rule of Four is so tedious in places that I can see why some people don't finish it. In this book, we aren't solving puzzles to save the world, we are simply trying to finish a college thesis on time. And it's a thesis on a very boring subject, at that. 

    What really killed this book for me was the extremely detailed and painstaking descriptions of relationships and personalities. I found myself peeking ahead to see how much longer it would go on and if things would improve. A few times I stopped to read other books, and then went back to it with a sense of dread. Penny pincher that I am, I can't pay for a book and not finish it, so I finally made it through. I recommend this book for insomniacs. 

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2011

    Could have been better

    I like a clever book that takes somthing real and wrap it up into a creative fictional mystery. This story feel short of that.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 24, 2010

    A Major Disappointment

    I bought the book after my admission to Princeton, interested in knowing what the hype was all about. I read the book, twice, but didn't get it at all. It is preposterous on every level. Bad writing, combined with a haywire plot, and absurd characters. I still want to know why the hell the book was lauded so much. I absolutely don't get it. Buy the book only if you want to be bewildered.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2005

    Mystery, Love Story, or Psychological musings about father?

    This started out to be fascinating but soon went way over my head since I am not a Renaissance scholar. I still can't figure out the relevance of the love story except to try to make the life of the narrator part of the story. Then there is all Tom's struggle with his unresolved feelings about his father which added nothing that I could appreciate. And I can't believe that all the events happened in 24 hours! I should have quit in the middle except that I was somewhat curious about what the secret was.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 1, 2014

    Lovely...! beautiful.....!.... Just enjoy it.....!

    Lovely...! beautiful.....!.... Just enjoy it.....!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 18, 2013

    I too got it because of all of the comparisons to The DaVinci Co

    I too got it because of all of the comparisons to The DaVinci Code. As has been said frequently here, the comparison is not warranted. Yes, The Da Vinci Code may not be a masterpiece of literature, but it had intrigue, excitement and yes, puzzles. Lots of them. The puzzles, what there were, in the Rule of Four played a seemingly trivial part of the narrative. The emphasis of the book was more a highly detailed and tedious examination of a troubled young mans social interactions. I also particularly didn't like the fact that virtually the entire book is written as flashbacks that not only jump around in time, but give no clear indication that they are doing it. I kept finding myself half way into a section before I could figure out how it related to what came before.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2012

    Not for everyone...

    But I enjiyed it greatly!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 25, 2012

    A constant reader, I am always looking for something special to

    A constant reader, I am always looking for something special to really
    grab my interest. This book did it. I found the book well-written,
    well-paced, and somewhat genre-defying. I enjoyed going back (via the
    story) to campus life to tackle this intellectual mystery. The
    characters and the plot do take us out of the humdrum, but isn't that
    what a good book should do? A good read.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2012

    PAINFUL¿¿¿

    I purchased this on a whim and genuinely tried to muscle through it but, it was too slow to build momentum and left me waiting for a suspenseful plot to develop. Readers of Dan Brown will be bored to tears...

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 11, 2012

    Out of the hundreds of books on my bookshelf, this is the one I'

    Out of the hundreds of books on my bookshelf, this is the one I've read the most. I love a book that makes me think, and I found myself trying to solve the clues before the characters did. The ending is so well-written that I turn to it again and again for a little smile. For their first book, these authors knocked it out of the park and I can't wait to read more.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted May 5, 2012

    a very enjoyable read

    i don't agree with other reviews that describe this book as poorly written and boring. maybe the beginning of the story was a bit slow to start, if you want to get really picky. once i got sucked into the story, i couldn't put this book down! even long after i finished reading it, i found myself thinking about the puzzles and riddles in the story.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted July 8, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An Excellent Read!

    This turned out to be one of the best books that I have read in a number of years. I am really astonished that it did not get better reviews. I was quite taken with the writing style. The characters were well developed and believable. I certainly hope that the authors will collaborate again with similar work.

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  • Posted May 30, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    It actually is a good read

    I have seen many reviews of this book that only give it 3 out of 5 stars so I have to admit going into the novel I did not expect much because usually the majority is right about a novel. In the case of The Rule of Four the majority underestimates the novel. Now admittedly none of the action actually takes place in the novel but outside the novel. We never actually see Paul and Tom find the missing art that the Hypnerotomachia hints at. It is an interesting approach to have the action take place outside the novel and most likely would not work in many stories. But in The Rule of Four it works. The language of the novel is fantastic and approachable for many audiences. Perhaps the best thing about this novel is that it at times reads like a thesis on Hypnerotomachia, even going to the lengths of placing photos from the book into the novel that we are reading. As a lit major I appreciate this aspect of the book and it is the main reason that gave this book a 5 out 5. I prefer a reading of the novel that is at the center of all the scandal as opposed to unbelievable action that the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons are notorious for.

    Do not get me wrong I am not claiming that there is not an interesting plot or character construction. There is. The plot is just like all the other historical fiction, book adventure novels out there. People study this one book or time period and all of a sudden find themselves in some sort of adventure trying to discover the secrets that the book holds. The characters are just as round as those found in the same novels. Although I have to say that Tom in the end seems to have more of an epiphany in the end than Robert Langdon at the end of both the Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons.

    If you have not read this novel yet, do. It is well worth it if you are like me and appreciate a little story and a little literary exploration.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2009

    Captivating

    This is one of my favorite books of all time. I didn't want to set it down. Although it took a while to get into the action, the information about the old ivy league school was interesting.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Not as good as advertised, or even good

    This book was hyped like the successor to The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. It was not half as good as either of those books. The writing style was boring and long-winded. The plot never progessed; it was about 250 pages too long. The characters were flat and uninteresting. I can't believe I actually wasted the time finishing it. I would have been better off waiting for Dan Brown to finish another book, even if it takes another two years!

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2008

    Horrible

    This was the worst book I have read in quite some time. The author is pompus and loses his train of thought while writing. It was difficult to trudge through the entire story. Very bad.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2007

    One of the best books ever!

    If you like the Da Vinci Code, you will like this book.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2007

    A reviewer

    The premise of the story has potential, but both of the writers butcher it primarily due to poor grammar, and even worse sentence structure. I'm regularly editing the text as I read it, so I can actually understand what is happening. Put simply, the language usage and style is among the worst I've ever seen. A particular sticking point is the manner in which the authors constantly change tenses. Here is what they are trying to do: move the story along by actively engaging the reader. It's a good theory, but any writer or avid reader knows that to use the first person in this way requires at very least the classic omniscient narrator, and considerable literary skill. Both writers pitifully failed in their attempt.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2007

    Don't buy unless you're an insomniac who needs sleep!

    This may not be the worse book I've ever read, but it ranks right up there with the top 5 pieces of garbage. Don't waste your time, energy or money reading this. The characters are unbelievable, the story is slow and boring. I can't believe they needed two writers to write this poorly.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2007

    OUTSTANDING!

    The Rule of Four is about four friends living out their senior year at Princetion. It may be long and hard to understand, but The Rule of Four has a deep meaning behind it's text, just like that of the Hypnerotomachia. A must read for anyone who enjoys learning and reading into a books true meaning.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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