One of the top selling U.S. novels of the past year has been The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, a story of modern day intrigue, old mysteries and secret codes hidden in works of art. Now comes another best seller offering a similar kind of mix. It's called The Rule of Four and it was written by first time novelists Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. But while The Da Vinci Code offers new revelations into some of the great icons of West European visual art, The Rule of Four unfolds on the campus of an elite American University, and it revolves around a 15th century literary manuscript.
Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason say they became literary partners around the same time they became best friends in the third grade. The two joined forces to write a crime caper play while attending elementary school in suburban Washington, D.C. They continued writing together throughout their school years, even though they went off to different colleges, Ian to Princeton and Dustin to Harvard. A week after they graduated in 1998, they began work on The Rule of Four. Ian says the idea came from a course he took at Princeton.
"A Renaissance history professor suggested I write my final paper on a book called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which I'd never heard of, and neither of us could spell," he said. "So I went to the library to look it up, and it turns out to be one of the most valuable books in the history of Western printing. Nobody knows who wrote it, and yet there's a code inside the book that seems to suggest the identity of the author. It's written in about half a dozen ancient languages, everything from Italian and Latin and Greek to Hebrew and Arabic and Egyptian hieroglyphics. The material in the book is also very peculiar. There's a lot of sexual imagery, a lot of violence that makes it surprisingly un-Christian considering the Christian time period, the Renaissance and the culture it came out of. So all the way around it's something that scholars have been puzzled by."
Ian and Dustin turned that real life mystery into a fictional story set at Princeton University, where a group of students race to unravel the secrets of the Hypnerotomachia. When things turn violent, the students realize there's more at stake than intellectual curiosity. Dustin Thomason says they drew inspiration from their own college experiences and from the Hypnerotomachia .
"Neither one of us had any professors who were as evil as the ones that are represented in The Rule of Four," he said. "But we tried as best we could to recreate the feeling of being a senior in college and the feeling of working on something your senior thesisthat is incredibly important to you. And every time we would come to a new theme, the Hypnerotomachia seemed like it was speaking to us. For every piece in The Rule of Four there is some counterpart within the Hypnerotomachia. At its heart the Hypernotomachia is a love story. It's a about a man who's searching for a woman he's in love with. And The Rule of Four is also in some ways about the struggle of a man trying to figure out how to balance his obsession with this book and the woman he's in love with."
Ian and Dustin were aided in their research by the first English translation of the Hypnerotomachia , which was published while they were working on their novel. They divided up the writing duties, working on separate chapters, then reviewing them together. Over time, Ian Caldwell says they developed a single voice for their main character, a Princeton senior named Tom Sullivan.
"At the beginning you could read the chapters we put together that summer of 1998, and they were wildly different," he said. "The characters were speaking very differently. In fact I think we had slightly different visions of the characters themselves, which didn't help. And by about year four we started to think finally we have a character who's able to talk the way we want him to talk. And by then we'd been at it so long we could both do it."
Dustin Thomason says they also learned how to resolve disagreements over plot or characterization.
"It happened quite often, especially at first," he said. "We decided at the beginning we were never going to put a chapter aside until we were both happy with it. We spent hours and hours on the phone, literally eight-hour conversations sometimes discussing a single chapter. And either we would find a compromise, or one of us would have the burden of convincing the other one that their vision was the right one." After several rejections, the two finally found a publisher who expressed interest, but told Ian and Dustin to rewrite the story to make the main character more sympathetic. The book that finally emerged hit the top of U.S. bestseller lists almost as soon as it was published last May, and drew inevitable comparisons to The Da Vinci Code. Dustin Thomason says they're flattered by those comparisons, but they didn't set out to imitate Dan Brown's hugely popular novel.
"To be even in the same sentence as The Da Vinci Code to us is absolutely wonderful for us," said Dustin Thomason. "When The Da Vinci Code came out we had actually been working on The Rule of Four for almost five years. And at first when we read it we weren't shocked by the similarities, because while there are some similarities, there are also some pretty substantial differences. And it wasn't until later, when critics started bringing up this comparison that The Da Vinci Code became a regular part of our vocabulary."
As to why American readers seem so interested in reading about historical codes and long-buried secrets, Ian Caldwell has this explanation. "Part of it may be that a lot of people love history, but so much of history in school tends to be facts and dates and memorization," he said. "So I think there's always been an appetite out there to see the past in an exciting way which in fact I think history at its heart isit's always an interesting story. It's actually surprising to me that more novels don't have a historical component like this."
If The Rule of Four is about bringing history to life, Ian and Dustin say it's also about the power of friendship, and they wrote it partly as a way of preserving their own. After college, Ian went to work as a software engineer in Virginia, and Dustin earned medical and business degrees in New York. But they've stayed in touch through The Rule of Four and they're now working on a second thriller together. They say that while they might write separate books someday, it's hard to imagine, they've gotten too used to relying on each other for inspiration.