The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

The continued wanderings of a newly minted librarian

Caldwell, I. & Thomason, D. (2004). The rule of four. New York: Dial Press.

The Rule of Four is actually a quite entertaining novel if you can get over the misogyny and sexism of some of the characters. The plot and antics remind me of and Umberto Eco or Dan Brown book, but with childish, frat boy type characters.

The action takes place at Princeton and involves four students who unexpectedly became good friends. Gil is the wealthy banker’s son who just oozes authority and, of course, becomes president of Ivy (Princeton’s most exclusive eating club). Charlie has come from a poor family in Philadelphia where he ran with volunteer ambulances in the worst neighborhoods and is looking to go to medical school. Paul is a brilliant orphan who has been fascinated with obscure books. Tom is the narrator and has followed in his father’s path to Princeton.

Tom’s father was killed in a car accident when Tom was a teenager. His dad was obsessed with an obscure book called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. This book becomes the connection between Tom and Paul as Paul has read Tom’s Father’s book on the subject. Paul ends up doing his thesis on the Hypnerotomachia and is assisted by Vincent Taft (professor who knew Tom’s father and was also obsessed with the book), Bill Stein (graduate student of Taft’s), and Richard Curry (old Princeton friend of Tom’s father who was also obsessed with the book).

The Hypnerotomachia was, at first glance, a novel about a man looking for love in a dream. However, as Paul proves, there are hidden codes (ala Dan Brown) throughout the book. If one can solve the riddles left by the mysterious author and then apply some basic cryptography techniques, the truth of the book is revealed.

The author, Francesco Colonna, wrote the book as a hidden clue to find his crypt in which he stored an amazing treasure. The premise is that in the late 1400s a priest, Girolamo Savonarola, was getting the citizens of Florence to gather up any sinful objects including pagan or anti Christian items and burn them on at the Shrove Tuesday festival (bonfire of the vanities). The famous burning is February 7, 1497.  Many things were gathered including cards, dice, paintings, cosmetics, books, etc. Enormous amounts of priceless artwork and books of knowledge were lost. Colonna was afraid that all knowledge would be lost just when Europe had crept out of the dark ages. He made it his goal to collect all the works he could and preserve them in a hidden, waterproof, crypt where they could not be destroyed. He then left his book to lead only the people who would value such things to find his crypt.

This part of the story line is excellent and the ending is quite a surprising one. At first, I admit, I did not like the way the ending was going (sorry, you have to read the book), but then it got back on the course I would have preferred and in the end, I was quite happy I found this wonderful story.