In 2004, Ian Caldwell ’98 exploded onto the literary scene with The Rule of Four, a thriller co-written with Dustin Thomason about two Princeton seniors trying to unravel a secret message encoded in an obscure Renaissance book. After winning praise from book reviewers — some said it was better than Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code — the novel became a media sensation, spending 49 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. The experience was overwhelming, Caldwell recalls.
“When it was published, I had left my dot-com job to focus on writing, and had been making $20 an hour tutoring for the SATs. A week later I was on the front page of The New York Times,” he says.
Eleven years later, Caldwell is back in print with The Fifth Gospel, a murder mystery that draws back the curtain on the secret world of the Vatican. The novel begins when the curator of a controversial museum exhibit on the Shroud of Turin is murdered, and brings to light a branch of Catholicism in which priests can be married. The seeds for the story were planted during Caldwell’s junior year at Princeton, when he researched St. Augustine’s interpretation of the Bible for his junior paper.
“I’m not a Catholic or practicing Christian, but I had been trained at Princeton in the humanistic tradition, and I wanted to learn more about how Christians interpret their holy texts,” Caldwell says.
Caldwell and Thomason, friends since childhood, had planned to write the new novel together, but Caldwell ended up on his own after Thomason became a television producer. Caldwell worked on The Fifth Gospel full-time for 12 years, interviewing Vatican priests, instructors at seminaries in Rome, and specialists in Catholic canon law. Publishers Weekly called the book “a superior religious thriller.”
Though Caldwell never took a creative writing class at Princeton, he always hoped to be a novelist, he says: “It is, without a doubt, what I’ve always wanted to do.”