I am instinctively suspicious of novels with two authors. Non-fiction books with two authors strike me as dubious enough: can the authors really have a united vision of their subject, and a common style? But a novel with two writers.... Brrr.
So, The Rule of Four had me doubtful from the start. And another cause for worry was the fact that it was being touted as the next Da Vinci Code. And OK, so I read the Da Vinci thing and enjoyed it, up to a point, but it was instantly forgettable. What sort of a book was going to be produced by a couple of guys who were (apparently) trying to come in on Dan Brown's coat-tails?
Well, a darn sight better one than you might imagine, is the answer. But it took me a while to get to that conclusion. (And the book was, by the way, written before Da Vinci appeared.)
When I began to read The Rule of Four, my first impression was that it was going to be a typically over-hyped piece of commercial fiction. On the strength of the first chapter it seemed that these two (presumably inexperienced) writers just didn't have the technique to bolt together a gripping book: for my taste, they introduced far too many characters, too quickly. Indeed it took me a great many chapters to figure out who all these people were, and I'm not sure that I ever got a clear hold on some of them.
However, the book was never quite bad enough to persuade me to chuck it on one side, and as time went by I began to see that it had very considerable virtues.
First of all, it is a book set in a university, Princeton, and it is written by two educated men. And since I spent my entire working life in education, and still have an eccentric faith in its power to transform the world, that was something I welcomed. Furthermore, we have here two American writers who evidently have some respect for European culture, and that too was encouraging.
Another element which began to emerge was that, although the book is a whodunit, of sorts, with a solve-the-code mystery thrown in for good measure, it is actually a book about obsession. And that is interesting.
Obsessions, of course, take various forms. This one happens to be an obsession with a book published in Venice in 1499, but that can act as a metaphor (if you care for such things) for obsessions of various other kinds.
So, all in all, this book got better as it went along. And by the time I got to the end I was really quite impressed. True, the ending is far-fetched, if you look at it in the cold light of day. But you don't read the ending in the cold light of day, that's the point. You read it as a culmination of all that has gone before, and in that context I found it both moving and hopeful for the future.
Congratulations, then, to these two young authors. They have produced a powerful novel, which is, I suggest, in a wholly different league from Da Vinci. The UK paperback edition is said to have sold 250,000 copies in a few weeks, presumably on the Da Vinci connection, but whether all those hopeful punters will have actually read it all the way through I am inclined to doubt. It is by no means what you would expect from the hype.
Biographical note: Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason are apparently old school friends. Caldwell attended Princeton University, where he studied history; he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1998. Dustin Thomason attended Harvard University, where he studied anthropology and medicine. He won the Hoopes Prize for undergraduate writing, and graduated in 1998. Thomason also received his M.D. and MBA from Columbia University in 2003.
Whether two such highly talented young men will ever write any more fiction, either separately or together, remains to be seen.