Troy Patterson
April 30, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Rule of Four

Current Status
In Season
Ian Caldwell, Dustin Thomason
Mystery and Thriller, Fiction

We gave it a C

We meet Princeton senior Paul Harris the night before his thesis is due, an evening that generally involves nothing more dramatic than spell-check. But Paul’s work sleuthing out hidden messages in the knotty, real-life Renaissance text Hypnerotomachia Poliphili draws his friends and mentors into murderous intrigue — although, chief among the book’s numerous faults, we don’t learn why that should be until just before the climax. We are, however, treated to pedantic lectures on cryptography and 15th-century Florence, snatches of philosophy (”Time is the guy at the amusement park who paints shirts with an airbrush”), and a view of undergraduate life seemingly lifted from a boys’ adventure story. Is it any wonder a novel that views literary interpretation as fancy codework should be strictly by the numbers?

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