The Rule of Four and The Fictional World of Archives

Original Novel Title: The Rule of Four

Author: Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

Publisher: New York, NY: Dial Press, May 2004 (hardcover, 372 pages)

This debut novel by a pair of Princeton University and Harvard University graduates (Class of 1998) revolves around a quartet of male friends at Princeton University, two of whom are bound by a family and research connection to a mysterious Renaissance book, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, by Francesco Colonna (1499), and the nature of some kinds of student friendship during the last year of university, in this case 1999. Some reviewers have called this a coming-of-age novel. The hardcover dustjacket offers a testimonial by author Nelson DeMille, who compares this first novel to something the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Umberto Eco, and Dan Brown together would write. I wouldn't go that far, because I felt the character development aspects were overblown and interfered with what I thought was the real story, the solving of the puzzle behind the Hypnerotomachia.  This novel is definitely in the subgenre of mystery or suspense novel set on university campuses, especially those by Ralph M. McInerny. As part of the plot involves a mini-history of Renaissance Florence and Dominican monk Savonarola (1452-1498), a useful and more detailed fictional contrast in its presentation of that era is Sarah Dunant's The Birth of Venus (2003).

The connection to the archival world is slim, resting almost solely on a Renaissance diary that provides important clues into determining the identity of the Hypnerotomachia's author, and which contained a blueprint of the lock used by Colonna to seal his vault. The diary also serves as a motive for murder, since it was stolen from the benefactor of one of the students, Paul Harris, whose undergraduate thesis is on the Hypnerotomachia. The connection to the museum world is stronger, as a couple of scenes are set in the Princeton University Art Museum, including one in which two of the students, Tom Sullivan, the narrator and whose father also researched the Hypnerotomachia, and Paul Harris, essentially break into the museum after hours, with some help from Harris' work access privileges there. There's also a scene in the Rare Books and Special Collections department of Princeton University Library (aka the Firestone Library), with what I might call the typical undergraduate contempt of librarians. The authors' portrayal of museum curators is also stereotypical. For those who want to orient themselves to Princeton as it is today and view some of the buildings described in the novel, try this Campus Map.

  1. The Rule of Four Official Web Site. Learn more about the book, the authors, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and play The Rule of Four Webquest Game.
  2.  Read more about and purchase The Rule of Four via
  3. Read more about and purchase the first English translation (December 1999) of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: The Strife of Love in a Dream via
  4. Locate library copies of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili through

CONTENTS: The Fictional World of Archives

Submitted by David Mattison, 2004.10.11. Updated 2004.10.28.