The Invisible Ones, By Stef Penney

Unearthing crime in a secret world
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The Independent Culture

To resist success requires great courage on the part of a writer.

Stef Penney's first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves, a murder story set in the Canadian tundra, was a runaway prizewinner. Many novelists would have been tempted to repeat the formula. Instead, Penney gives us something that is thousands of miles away from her debut.

The location for The Invisible Ones is the world of the Romanies and their self-defining attempts to maintain their way of life. It's a society that Ray Lovell, a private eye of gypsy descent, thought he had left far behind until he is asked to trace the missing wife of Ivo Janko and discovers the mysterious Janko clan, who have more family secrets than the Borgias. They have set their faces against the outside world, and only because of his ancestry is Ray able to make any headway.

The world he enters is like a maze, but he persists valiantly and the search for the missing woman supplies a suspense which makes this a real page-turner. The narrative is successfully divided between Ray's blundering investigations and the thoughts of "JJ", a sharply intelligent boy also of "mixed blood", trying to survive in the dual – and often conflicting – spheres of school and caravan.

Yet the Janko encampment in the English countryside is not such a world away from the Canadian wastes. Penney feels deeply the significance of space – on the one hand, boundless frozen landscape, on the other, the cramped confinement of the caravan. A gypsy who finds himself in a house wonders at a world where people can shut themselves away in different rooms. "The mind is its own place," as Milton said.

Privacy is unknown to this family, but not shame, for the Jankos are "black gypsies" who regard the rest of us as unclean beings whose touch can contaminate, with levels of sexual prudery that make Queen Victoria seem like a nautch girl. As in her previous book, although she famously did not visit Canada, Penney has carried out extensive research. She has looked at modern accounts of Roma society as well as at that colourful but untrustworthy 19th-century guide, George Borrow. A thoroughness underpins Penney's atmospheric creation, and she is totally free from sentimentality.

The Jankos can be violent, untrustworthy, and on occasion as deeply prejudiced as any respectable suburbanites, but Penney makes her Romanies recognisable individuals with whose fates we are involved. Where will she take us next?