David Pinner, Ritual (Finders Keepers, 1967)
I find it absolutely staggering that Ritual was out of print for as long as it was before being resurrected by Finders Keepers—a music collective, not a press—in 2011. After all, Ritual is the novel that Robin Hardy and Anthony Shaffer loosely adapted to create The Wicker Man, one of filmdom’s enduring classics (despite the slight loss of luster form the abortion foisted on the world as a “reimagining” in 2006). According to Finders Keepers’ preface to the new edition, Christopher Lee had optioned the book himself back in the sixties, but Lee, Hardy, and Shaffer, after the deal fell through, thought the source material was too good to pass up and, in essence, cooked up their own version by changing a few key elements. And yes, you will be able to see a good deal of similarity between the two stories.
Plot: Eight-year-old Dian Spark falls to her death while climbing a tree. Or so it would seem; why would she be climbing a tree whilst clutching a garlic blossom? Big-city inspector David Hanlin is called in to investigate, and the more the clannish villagers try to keep the incident to themselves, the harder he tries to break through their shell, until the Mayday festival reveals all to everyone involved…
Since the question that’s going through your head right now is “is it as good as The Wicker Man?” I’ll start by telling you the answer is no. Nor is it as good as Hardy and Shaffer’s novelization of Shaffer’s script (cf. review 29Mar04 ish). While there are certainly bits where the Shaffer team should have cleaved more closely to Ritual—Hanlin is far more a nuanced character than Neil Howie’s paragon of Christian goodness, for example—Pinner is simply not as good a writer as Shaffer. The prose is oft times as purple as the book’s cover, and for a rural town, everyone in it feels so… urbane. This is not necessarily a bad thing—if this town existed in the real world, it would be tops on my list of places to move—but it does require a great deal of suspension of disbelief. Also, there are a few places where Pinner seems to let one fact or another of one of his subplots get beyond his control. Never for a long time, and never enough to entirely derail the book, but enough to jar.
If you’re a Wicker Man fan (and isn’t everyone?), this is essential reading. On the other hand, if the movie’s not your cup of tea, this isn’t one to go seeking out. ** ½