In The Spotlight: Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Besides the crime/mystery of the main plot, some crime stories also offer perspectives on other cultures, and interesting ‘windows’ into the way other people live. Let’s take a look at that sort of book today and turn the spotlight on Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones.

As the story begins, PI Ray Lovell is recovering in a hospital from what we soon learn is a poisoning. He gradually becomes aware of his surroundings, and it’s not long before he starts to be aware of who he is and where he is. Then the story shifts to the beginning of the events that led to Lovell’s being poisoned.

It all really starts when Lovell gets a visit from Leon Wood, who wants Lovell to find his daughter, Rose. Apparently, she went missing several years ago after a short marriage to a man named Ivo Janko. The real reason Wood wants to hire Lovell is that Lovell is half-Roma, and all of the families involved are Roma. Wood fears that no-one will want to talk to a PI who isn’t ‘one of us.’ Lovell agrees to take the case, and he starts to ask questions. The first person he wonders about is Wood himself. After all, why would he wait so long to try to find his daughter? But there are plenty of other people who might know something, or even be involved. For instance, there’s Rose’s husband, Ivo. And that’s where Lovell heads next.

Soon enough, Lovell meets a few members of the Janko clan, and they all tell him the same story: Rose did marry Ivo, but ran off after their son was born. Even when Lovell finally meets Ivo, he hears the same story. But some things about it don’t completely ring true, and he continues to ask questions.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to James ‘JJ’ Smith, a fourteen-year-old Roma boy. As his part of the story begins, he and his family are on their way to Lourdes, hoping for a miracle cure for JJ’s six-year-old cousin, Christopher ‘Christo.’ It seems that Christo has an incurable illness that has kept him from developing normally. Through JJ’s eyes, readers follow along as the family visits Lourdes, and then returns to the UK.

As the novel moves along, the stories of Rose, of JJ, and of Ray Lovell, who’s trying to put it all together, merge. And, in the end, we learn the truth about what happened to Rose. We also learn why and by whom Ray was poisoned.

Most of the characters in the novel are Roma, so readers learn quite a bit about the Roma way of life. Since Lovell is half-Roma, he’s considered ‘one of us,’ or at the very least, acceptable. So, he doesn’t have uninformed notions of what the Roma are like. And, since many parts of the story are told from his perspective, the portrait we get of the Jankos and of other Roma people is not the superficial depiction that one might hear in stories or legends.

Penney places the reader distinctly within the Roma community, in terms of lifestyle, culture, values, and even some of the language. It’s a ‘warts and all’ exploration, too, told from the point of view of people who are proud Roma, as well as that of people who aren’t. Penney also explores the way the Roma are viewed by gorjios (non-Roma people). We see this especially as we follow JJ’s story, since he has to negotiate his own world and the world of school.

This is a PI story, so readers also get a look at the way modern PIs go about their work (the novel was published originally in 2011). Lovell and his business partner, Henry ‘Hen’ Hamilton-Price, have more than one case going at a time.  They’re concerned about the financial aspect of their business. They meet with clients, develop relationships with people in the police force and the media who will help them, and so on.

It’s hard in the Wood/Lovell case, though, to use the Internet and other public records,  as Roma people often aren’t reflected in those records, and rarely on social media. Those who travel often don’t stay in one place, so, even if there is some sort of public record, there’s no guarantee of locating a given person. So, Lovell uses his Roma identity to get the word out (e.g. ‘I’ll ask around. See if anyone knows anything.’).

The story is told from Lovell’s perspective (first person, mostly present tense), and JJ’s (also first person, present tense). So, we get to know their characters. Lovell’s marriage to his wife, Jen, has ended, although that’s not what he wanted. In fact, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s a sub-plot concerning divorce papers. He’s a bit at odds with himself, but he’s not a demon-haunted, drunken detective who can’t handle his life. Rather, he’s trying to make a sort of new life for himself.

For JJ’s part, he’s dealing with the issues many young people do: finding a social place for himself (and possibly a girlfriend), doing schoolwork, and so on. He also has questions about what happened to his father (all his mother will say is that his father was a gorjio who wouldn’t marry her, and who left when she got pregnant). As is the case with many teens, he’s also trying to be grown-up, when sometimes, he feels very young indeed.

The solution to the mystery of what happened to Rose is very sad, and finding it out doesn’t make anyone happier or better off. Readers who prefer endings where everything is all right again will notice that. But the questions are answered, and it’s clear that life will go on, and might even be good for some of the characters.

The Invisible Ones is a close look at modern Roma people, and what happens to a close-knit community when long-buried questions come up. It features a sleuth who’s a part of that community in his way, and a young man who’s trying to find his Roma way in a gorjio world. But what’s your view? Have you read The Invisible Ones? If you have, what elements do you see in it?


Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday, 10 December/Tuesday, 11 December – Too Late to Die – Bill Crider

Monday, 17 December/Tuesday, 18 December – All She Was Worth – Miyuki Miyabe

Monday, 24 December/Tuesday, 25 December – In Cold Blood – Truman Capote


Filed under Stef Penney, The Invisible Ones

21 responses to “In The Spotlight: Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones

  1. This sounds like an interesting story, Margot, and I would like to give it a try someday. I do have The Tenderness of Wolves on my TBR, so will probably read that one first.

  2. Kathy D.

    This was a good book. I appreciated the history of the Roma people and knowing about discrimination against them historically and today. Some of the gender issues may rub some LGBTQ folks the wrong way. I’d have to follow up and see about this.
    But it’s a good story with a good child character. I like her writing.

    • You make a solid point, Kathy, about the exploration of the modern Roma people. Penney presented a solid picture of that group. And I agree with you about her writing style.

  3. Keishon

    I bought this book several years ago but could never get past the first chapter. Tried twice. I kept it because I’d like to read it someday. I’ve read and expanded my reading palate since then so it might be an easier read. Thanks for the spotlight, Margot. You make me grateful I kept a copy.

    • No book is for everyone, Keishon. So, if you try it again, you might still find that it’s not for you. That said, though, I do think people’s tastes change over time. I think it’s certainly possible that you might try it again and enjoy it more. Either way, I’ll be interested in what you think if you do open it again.

  4. I haven’t read this one but my spreadsheet tells me I bought it in 2013, so it must be getting near the top of the heap… 😉 I’d have bought it because I enjoyed The Tenderness of Wolves so much, but this one sounds very different and not quite my kind of thing, which may be why I’ve been unconsciously putting it off.

    • I will say, FictionFan, this is different to The Tenderness of Wolves. And, of course, no book is for everyone. When it does get to the top of your TBR, and you try it, I’ll be really interested in what you think of it. I will say I think you’d find the portrayal of the Roma people interesting.

  5. This one definitely sounds intriguing. Adding it to my ever-growing TBR list. Thanks for the introduction, Margot.

  6. Kathy D.

    This book sent me googling more about the history of the Roma people, which is a good aspect of an interesting book.

  7. Col

    This does sound very good, Margot

  8. Reblogged this on DSM Publications and commented:
    Check out what’s In The Spotlight. It’s Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones as featured in this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog,

  9. I’m very interested in this one, especially the warts and all look at the Roma community – another one for the list to be considered in 2019!

    • I think you’d very much enjoy this one very much on that score, Cleo. At least for me, Penney did an effective job of depicting the Roma people. When you get the chance to read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  10. This sounds fascinating, Margot. I’d never heard or read about the “Roma” race before and when I did read about it on the internet, I found that they were a tribe of gypsies who apparently arrived in Europe and America from Northern India in the 1400s. I assume these are the same Roma people. I think the cultural offshoot within the mystery makes THE INVISIBLE ONES more interesting to read.

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