July 7, 2004: Reading Room

Ian Caldwell ’98, left, and coauthor Dustin Thomason based their novel on a strange Renaissance text Caldwell studied at Princeton. (Photo: Olivier Delfosse)

Secret codes, tunnels, and murder
Ian Caldwell ’98 pens a thriller set at Princeton

When Ian Caldwell ’98 and his longtime friend Dustin Thomason finished college, they decided to tackle something they had always wanted to do: write a novel. They planned to crank it out in three months, before Caldwell started his job at a software company and before Thomason, a Harvard alumnus, began medical school. They holed up in Caldwell’s parents’ basement in Annandale, Virginia — writing chapters independently, then swapping them for revisions. But by September 1998, there was much more work to do. The Rule of Four, published by Dial Press in May, would take another six years to finish. “If we had thought it was going to take that long, I don’t know that we could have started it,” says Caldwell.

Persevere they did. Caldwell quit his job after a year to write full-time from Newport News, Virginia. He made ends meet by teaching S.A.T. and G.R.E. prep courses at night. Thomason worked on the manuscript while earning an M.D. and M.B.A. from Columbia University. “The pull of this book is something we couldn’t shake,” says Caldwell.

A thriller set on Princeton’s campus, The Rule of Four revolves around The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a real, obscure book published anonymously in 1499 in Venice, written in seven languages, and illustrated with bizarre woodcuts. The Rule of Four’s main characters, Princeton seniors Tom Sullivan and Paul Harris, try to unravel a secret message encoded in the strange Renaissance text.

The Rule of Four has been compared to Dan Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code (2003). Publishers Weekly called The Rule of Four the “more cerebral — and better written — of the two.”

Caldwell and Thomason owe the idea for the novel’s mystery to history professor Anthony Grafton and his seminar, “Renaissance Art, Science, and Magic,” which Caldwell took senior year. Grafton suggested Caldwell write his final paper on The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. “I said, ‘How do you spell that?’” recalls Caldwell.

The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, says Caldwell, is, on the surface, about Poliphilo, who searches for the woman he loves. But the author takes many detours, for example, describing in detail the measurements of buildings. The book “just doesn’t make sense,” says Caldwell, whose senior thesis for the history department was on French politics in the 1930s. “The pieces don’t all come together.”

In The Rule of Four, the pieces do come together, but not before two people are knocked off, and Sullivan and Harris become obsessed with the Renaissance text. Sullivan, the novel’s narrator, describes life at Princeton — eating clubs, college pranks, and the coming-of-age of young men. The novel looks at the bonds of friendship and how relationships change, and sometimes dissolve, over time.

The authors, whose first collaborative writing effort was a third-grade play, set the story at Princeton because of the feel of the insular campus, says Caldwell. He remembers late, misty nights, working on papers: “Walking through the Gothic buildings toward the Wawa to get a drink, you could see shadows passing in the distance — that was exactly the mood we wanted for this book.”

By K.F.G.


Ultimate Style: The Best of the Best Dressed List — Bettina Zilkha ’82 (Assouline). Founded in 1940 by Eleanor Lambert as a publicity ploy to boost the drooping American fashion industry, the annual Best Dressed List includes famous women considered fashion icons of their times — Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Bianca Jagger, and more recently Gwyneth Paltrow. Zilkha features four to six of the most stylish women from each decade in this coffee-table book. Zilkha is the international contributing editor for TheTrendReport.com.

Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air — Gregory Dicum ’91 (Chronicle Books). Illustrated with more than 70 aerial photographs, this book helps travelers learn how to “read” the landscape as they fly over North America at 35,000 feet. Dicum divides the land into regions and describes the landforms, waterways, cities, and major sights travelers will see from their windows. Dicum also wrote The Coffee Book (1999).

Re-Enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West — Jeffery Paine *71 (Norton). The author explores the dramatic growth of Tibetan Buddhism in the West and how that religion has changed the American religious landscape. Paine recounts stories of people who have been involved in this movement, such as Jetsunma, the first Western woman to be recognized as a reincarnated Buddhist figure. Paine was the literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.

By K.F.G.



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