The Rule of Four, Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason

Dial Books, 2004, 384 pages, C$34.00 hc, ISBN 0-385-33711-6

The mega-success of The Da Vinci Code has had a variety of consequences both good and bad. Dan Brown may never write a good novel now that he can sell copies of his grocery lists. Le Louvre will probably pick up a few dozen new tourists per year. Some people will make fools of themselves by believing any of the book, or calling for its immediate ban. For the next ten years, paperback racks are going to be packed with rip-offs both explicit and implicit.

The explicit ripoffs will be easy to spot, and most of them will deserve nothing more than an early cover stripping. Built to order by wily authors in search of a best-seller, hyped by publishers anxious to repeat a once-in-a-lifetime success and ignored by seasoned readers in search of new thrills: As a trend, it’ll burn itself out. Maybe we’ll even get one or two good surprises out of it.

The implicit ripoffs will be harder to spot, and much less deserving of scorn. They’ll be honest books that, for a reason or another, will be similar to The Da Vinci Code. But no good idea goes unpunished and so publishers will promote the novels as “the next step in thrillers!” The authors will be hailed as “the new Dan Brown!” Quality won’t matter; just marketing.

I believe that The Rule of Four is a fine example of the latter category. Written well before The Da Vinci Code became such a monster hit and sharing only passing similarities with Dan Brown’s breakout book (it, too, deals with historical investigations), Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s debut book is so different from The Da Vinci Code that it’s almost a shame to speak of both in the same sentence. But guess what? The book became a success because of Dan Brown’s book. Now it must suffer the consequences of the association. (Here’s an amusing Google factoid: A search for the authors reveals 23,000 hits. A search for the authors excluding “da vinci code” gives 8,000 hits. Ouch!)

Suffice to say, in its defence, that The Rule of Four is much better-written than the average thriller. The narrator of the book tells the last events of his stay at Princeton with a somber quality that adds a lot of depth to the telling. The plot also holds its own: As he and his friends get sucked into the study of a devilishly complex book, strange things start to happen; people die, old enemies fight once more and an age-old secret is revealed. This book, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, has driven scholars to madness before; will the same thing happen to our heroes?

Well, I’ll let you find out. But as historical clues and modern dangers accumulate, it’s obvious that this is a thriller with grand ambitions both erudite and literary. Structurally, The Rule of Four is a tour de force; it mixes layers of flashbacks, centuries of history, decades of obsession and a “modern-day” plot –all told from a viewpoint years removed. Whew!

Still, don’t think that this is a constant page-turner: As the background is slowly put together for the benefit of the reader, it’s easy to think that this is not leading anywhere. But stick with it: about halfway in the book, the true issue becomes clear, and the novel benefits from the new revelations. Things start to slide once more near the end as traditional thriller mechanics take over inventiveness. But don’t worry, the last two pages rescue the novel from the doldrums.

Not that this is a completely believable novel: Among other mistakes and liberties (First snowfall in April? In which hemisphere?), our college-age protagonists are unbelievably refined, able to quote historical figures (in multiple languages) at the drop of a beer can. It would be ridiculous if it wasn’t for the fact that the authors themselves are of the same age, and they can certainly sling the references.

But ironically enough, and perhaps insultingly enough, I have to admit that once you put The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four one alongside the other, it doesn’t matter if Dan Brown can’t write and The Rule of Four is a triumph of true erudition over flashy research. It doesn’t matter if one has real characters and the other one doesn’t. I doesn’t even matter if one is indisputably better than the other one; I still liked The Da Vinci Code better than The Rule of Four, warts and silliness and all.

But I still read The Rule of Four, and that’s not something I would have done if The Da Vinci Code hadn’t been so wildly popular.

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