Bibliophile reviews The Rule of Four (mystery, suspense)

Well, finally I have had time to sit down and write a book review, which is pretty good considering I have only been able to read a handful of books this month.

Authors: Ian Caldwell & Justin Thomasson
Year published: 2004

Two undergraduate students at Princeton University, Tom and Paul, get sucked into a mystery when another student who has been helping Paul with his thesis research is murdered, and it appears that his death has a link to the thesis, which is about an obscure and strange novel from the Renaissance period, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (a real book, BTW). Prior to Paul’s taking on this assistant, Tom had been helping him solve the riddle of the book, which (in the novel) is one big cryptogram. Tom had become nearly as obsessed with it as his father, a Hypnerotomachia scholar, had been, but pulled out in time before his obsession could ruin his relationship with his girlfriend. What follows is an investigation into the dead man’s connection to the Hypnerotomachia, an old journal that holds a clue as to the mystery, and a desperate attempt to solve the final cryptogram before something evil happens. (You wouldn’t want me to give too much away, right?)

First a few words about the style:
I hate present tense storytelling longer than a short story, especially when, as in this book, the story is being told in flashback but using the present tense. If the whole book had been written in this manner, I would probably not have finished it, but it is rescued by the alternate chapters that are in ordinary past tense. All the action takes place in the present tense, while the past tense is used for flashbacks into the backstory that explain the present tense narrative. Whether this is due to firstbookitis or not, I don’t know. Authors have always experimented with different styles of writing – indeed the literary world would not be nearly as colourful and interesting if they didn’t. But unfortunately, sometimes these stylistic experiments fail, and this one does so by being annoying.

As to firstbookitis, well there is plenty of that to go around.
Repetition is rife – we are told over and over about how Tom’s father, who was obsessed with the book, was killed in a car accident and how Tom and Paul met and became friends. Cutting out the repetitions would make the story shorter and more streamlined.
Another firstbookitis symptom is that the story tries to be too many things at once: thriller, adventure, coming-of-age story, 2 mysteries, conspiracy story, college novel, metafiction, even a love story. It takes a very good, experienced writer to pull of such a multi-genre story and not have it come out like he was trying to cram 15 stories into one.
It’s probably due to the different tenses used in alternate chapters that I feel as is there are two narrators, which should be counted as another firstbookitis symptom. The whole story is narrated throughout by Tom, but you can see plainly that two people wrote the book, which is unfortunate exactly because there is only one narrator. This would not have been a problem if there had been two narrators, for example Tom in the present tense chapters and a partially omniscient narrator in the other. (For a brilliant example of a book by two authors where it would take deep text analysis to find out who wrote what, see Neil Gaiman’s and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens).
The authors have perfectly captured the atmosphere of university and made it dark and brooding as befits a mystery/thriller/conspiracy tale. This is unfortunately a big fault in the story – the atmosphere is overplayed to the point of becoming a character in the story. The descriptions of the tunnels (read the book if you want to know which tunnels) and of snow and darkness are lovingly and beautifully crafted, but just too long.

The murder mystery is simple and a reader with experience of mysteries can figure it out before the halfway point. The bibliomystery is harder to figure out. You realise quickly that it’s about either a treasure or a secret, but what it is only unfolds gradually, and that is what kept me reading. Once both mysteries are solved, the story, instead of going out with the climactic bang it attempts, instead sort of fizzles out in the altogether too predictable denouement. At the end of the last chapter, I thought to myself “Is that all?”, and put the book down, disappointed.

All in all, here is a book that, once read, I have no desire to read again. Once the bibliomystery was solved, there was nothing left to enjoy about the book. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying you shouldn’t read it, but there are better books out there. 2,5 stars.

There, I’ve done it, and not one mention of that book by Dan Brown… or the one by Umberto Eco.


piksea said…
I was not a big fan of this book, either. This and The Intelligencer both left me cold. The whole 'big mystery from centuries ago is somehow still extremely dangerous' doesn't usually work for me.
I really loved this novel actually, especially the audio version, although I agree with piksea's assessment of The Intelligencer. Another book in roughly the same category is Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian; it is so engaging I read it in one day.
Bibliophile said…
I've heard good things about The Historian - almost everyone in my online reading group loved it and I'm waiting for the library to get a copy.

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