Picks and Pans Review: The Rule of Four

updated 05/10/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/2004 01:00AM

by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

CRITIC'S CHOICE

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If you loved The Da Vinci Code but its cheesy writing made you hide the book from view in public, dive into this erudite tale of intrigue that snakes back to the 15th century. At the center of the plot is a real Renaissance manuscript called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a book so complex that learned scholars spent lifetimes trying and failing to decode it. In the novel, four Princeton University seniors, one of whom is studying the manuscript for his thesis, take a crack at the mystery—which might reveal the whereabouts of a buried treasure—while trying to duck the spell of violence surrounding it.

This debut packs all the esoteric information of The Da Vinci Code but with lovely writing reminiscent of Donna Tartt's The Secret History. The authors capture the cloying prettiness of college campuses and use that beauty to foretell danger. At one point, when the four some take a break to play a game of laser tag, they pause "under the orange eye of a sodium lamp" while "snowflakes twitch in huge clouds." In addition to their elegant prose, Caldwell and Thomason have created an eager and sympathetic cast. Thomas Corelli Sullivan, the book's narrator, whose father spent his life on the manuscript and died without answers, is especially memorable. This is a compulsively readable novel that might make fans want to track down their own copy of the Hypnerotomachia—which in recent years has been translated into English--to see where it takes them.

NOVEL

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