Sergeant Phoebe “Flea” Marley is lead diver on Bristol’s Underwater Search Unit, most at home underwater where the vast, calming silence soothes her troubled spirit. After a tip, she recovers a severed hand. But this hand hasn’t been torn from an unrecovered suicide or floater. This hand is surgically neat, precise. The perplexing situation only becomes more so when the mate is unearthed soon after.
Police Inspector Jack Caffrey is the investigating officer from the Major Crimes Unit, newly transferred from London to Bristol. Hoping to leave his personal demons behind, Jack soon realizes they have come along for the ride. Quickly taking notice of each other, Jack and Flea ignore whatever attraction they experience, each caught up in a case that gets more bizarre by the day.
Unnerved since her parents’ accidental diving death in a treacherous pool in Africa’s Kalahari Desert two years earlier, Flea remains consumed with the loss, unable to come to terms with the manner of their death and the fact that their bodies have not been recovered. Official duties aside, she is distracted by her obsession to learn more about the accident, unable to release her parents to their fate.
Flea and Caffrey are the two most important characters in this thoroughly unsettling thriller, but there are more - the victims, the monsters, the seekers - all caught in a vortex that spins through the pages of this frightening tale. Trapping guilty and innocent alike, the predators and the prey, the city riddled with poverty, waste despair and menace, “There’s a whole universe out there… a universe of horror and despair darker than he’s ever dreamed possible.”
Flea and Caffrey work the case, discovering small but critical elements, yet failing to put together a cogent scenario. Meanwhile, there is the question of the body - the one missing its hands. While Jack attends to the tedious details that often lead to successful resolution, Flea is easily distracted, caught between her work and the loss she cannot reconcile. Together they come to a place filled with unexpected, unimaginable horrors, the stuff of nightmares: “You’re looking for death.”
Ritual is deeply creepy, easily one of the most frightening novels I have read in years, the dark, murky territory where the worst consequences happen to unfortunates, soul-destroying actions by monsters who capitalize on the failings of others. Masterfully manipulating her characters, their demons, and the denizens of the streets who feed on one another, Hayder has created a classic house of horrors, a compelling page-turner. I can’t stand to look, yet I can’t look away.
Littered with society’s rejects, Hayder’s novel injects real terror into the landscape of imagination: the occult rituals of African witchcraft and healing through harvested body parts; the inherent depravity of the drug-addicted in pursuit of release; and the errant wisdom of the streets that fails to protect unfortunates.
One of the most disturbing novels I have come across since Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort, Ritual is as seductive as it is horrifying. It takes a unique talent to poke about in the muck of human depravity, write a complicated, interesting story, and leave the reader relatively unscathed at the end. Even Flea and Caffrey can finally take a deep breath, shake off the horror and imagine a new day.