Let's get something out of the way: The Rule of Four by Justin Thomason and Ian Caldwell is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair as far as intellectual thrillers are concerned. There is, of course, an extremely obscure historical text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that apparently has an arcane code within it, revealing an earth-shaking truth that may rewrite history. There is an obsessive soul, a senior in Princeton named Paul, who becomes so consumed by the mystery that he pushes away the people who love him in his pursuit of it. There is a narrator named Tom who has already watched is his father be consumed by the Hypnerotomachia until his death and is now watching helplessly as the same thing happens to his best friend.
There are also deaths, because people who write their thesis on 15th Century Italian manuscripts live life on the edge.
But for some reason, reading this book pushed so many pleasure centers in my brain in ways that made me forgive the banal writing and even the weird tonal shifts that it takes. When the story is not straining to be suspenseful or shocking, I actually found it kind of comforting. The hermetic setting of the Princeton campus may also have contributed to that, because it evoked associations of Dead Poets' Society, The Gilmore Girls, and other pop culture things about idyllic schools and youth.
Also woven into the narrative is the theme of father-son relationships. Within the rarefied confines of academia, both Tom and Paul are ultimately seeking validation from father figures that seem to only convey their affection as it is related to history. I'm all about tender masculine relationships so those parts were really up my alley.
The authorial decision to structure the novel as a thriller, I think, ultimately hurt the story. Had Caldwell and Thomason emphasized the coming-of-age and nerdy mystery aspects while softening the mortal peril, it could have been a more satisfying read. It's in books like these that you can really detect the bald commerce of the book publishing industry. The Rule of Four clearly earned a lot of money my attaching its name onto Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (published one year before) but it also suffered when it comes to cultural esteem because of it. If it had been edited and marketed as, say, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, it could have attracted the kind of readers who are interested in atmosphere and academic scholarship, rather than readers looking for zippy thrillers with Vatican conspiracies.
I guess I like the idea of it more than its reality, which happens often enough. The Rule of Four has acute things to say about the futility and nobility of scholarship which really hit home for me and my own college experience. During those short years, you are put into this very unnatural environment where a missed term paper feels like the end of your life. It's a time when all the learning opportunities are there for the taking and you have all the time in the world to pursue all that you want to know. But of course, youth is wasted on the young.(less)
A couple of pages before finishing The Alienist, I declared that it is the most complete mystery I have ever read. Months after finishing this book, I...moreA couple of pages before finishing The Alienist, I declared that it is the most complete mystery I have ever read. Months after finishing this book, I still don't think that was hyperbole. Using the milieu of New York City in the middle of the Gilded Age, historian-turned-novelist Caleb Carr pits the emerging phenomenon of the serial killer against the pioneers of what would become criminal profiling in this fascinating example of a historical thriller.
At the center of the story is Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, an engimatic alienist--early word for psychiatrist--who is attempting to solve a series of gruesome murders targeting boy prostitutes in 1896 New York. He faces challenges from all sides: notorious proponents of morality are unwilling to accept the existence of boy prostitutes (or any form of homosexual trade) in the first place, and policemen of the time are violently opposed to any form of scientific inquiry into the criminal mind. With the help of a young, reform-minded Theodore Roosevelt, Kreizler creates a small team of intelligent and determined proto-profilers who gather material and pyschological evidence in order to create the portrait of an urban predator.
Moneyed journalist John Schuyler Moore is the narrator for the entire novel, chronicling his inclusion to the team as well as his long-standing history with Kreizler and Roosevelt. They are joined by Sarah Hamilton, a secretary in the New York police department who has her eyes on a more prominent role in law enforcement, as well as the Isaacson brothers, talented Jewish detectives who feel marginalized and underused in their current positions.
I require a lot before I'm able to completely buy into an extended 1st person POV, especially when it comes to historical fiction. The diction and inner life of the narrator must be just right, or else I start to disbelieve or distrust what they're saying--a dealbreaker for me. The Alienist, however, is pitch perfect in terms of the rhythms required from a profiling-focused mystery. Though not strictly "intellectual" in the way, say, a Perez-Reverte mystery is, there is still enough meat here to engage the mind even as Kreizler and team deal with copious amounts of legwork throughout their investigation.
Much like the early seasons of Criminal Minds may seem ponderous compared to other types of police procedurals, the tension here isn't on the action, but in the steady accumulation and discovery of the serial killer's history, pathology and motivations. The final confrontation is almost an afterthought, in fact, and I did feel that the scenes by end with their attempts to understand the killer become overlong and unnecessary.
Things this novel made me do:
- Look up "Knickerbocker" on Wikipedia, resulting to lost hours reading about New York as a former Dutch colony. - Use Google Maps to search for the crime scenes mentioned. - Re-indulge my years-old Anderson Cooper-triggered fascination with the Vanderbilt clan. - Trawl the internet for photos of young Theodore Roosevelt. Attractivess: affirmative.
So yeah. Thoroughly satifsying, an exemplary specimen of the mystery genre. Carr wrote a sequel to this, though conversations with a friend who has read it made me very leery of reading it. I just don't want my good opinion of this book tarnished. Is that weird? Anyway, I feel that I'll be coming back to this book when I need some comfort reading.
This book is definitely smarter than me but I don't hold that against it. Confounded me more than enlightened, but the final scene more than made up f...moreThis book is definitely smarter than me but I don't hold that against it. Confounded me more than enlightened, but the final scene more than made up for the obfuscations throughout the novel.(less)
I thoroughly enjoyed it for what it is: a thriller with touches of political theory. There are some instances where it's clear that Rabb is an inexper...moreI thoroughly enjoyed it for what it is: a thriller with touches of political theory. There are some instances where it's clear that Rabb is an inexperienced writer, but I still enjoyed it regardless.(less)
An erudite and gripping thriller, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel uses two arguably low-key elements (art restoration and chess) and turns t...moreAn erudite and gripping thriller, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel uses two arguably low-key elements (art restoration and chess) and turns them into the building blocks for an intelligent puzzle. I tore through my copy of this book in a couple of days until the reveal at the end, swept away by the descriptions of the Madrid art scene, the sharp dissection of chess gameplay and motivations, the reimagining of political intrigue in 15th Century Flanders.