Category Archives: Stef Penney

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

Go Where You Wanna Go*

ItinerantMost of us have a fixed place to live. It may not be where we grew up, or where we think of as ‘home,’ but it’s the place we return to when the work day is done. When we fill out forms, we have an address to include. But that’s not true of everyone. There are many people who have, as the saying goes, no fixed abode. They travel from place to place, never staying anywhere very long. They’re often on the fringes of society, too.

Groups like this can be insular, since they don’t often make a lot of connections with people not in the group. What’s more, ‘outsiders’ often don’t trust them, and the feeling is usually mutual. So when they’re involved in cases of murder, it can be especially difficult for the police to investigate. It doesn’t help matters that the police are often (‘though certainly not always) biased against itinerants. The whole dynamic can make for a very effective crime novel, given the realities of not having one particular place to live, and the feelings that others have about that.

One such group of people is the group of migrant farm workers. At least in the US, they move from place to place, working a few weeks or months on one farm or in one area, and then moving on. They follow harvests, and when their services are no longer needed, they’re expected to leave.

We see this lifestyle in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. That’s the story of George Milton and Lennie Small, two migrant workers who’ve been forced to leave their last place of employment and move on to the next. Lennie, who is of limited intelligence, was wrongly accused of attempted rape when he wouldn’t let go of a young woman’s dress. He says that he just enjoyed stroking it because it was soft, but that’s not how the young woman saw it. When George and Lennie get to their new jobs, they are checked in, given places to sleep, and introduced to the boss’ son, Curly. He’s arrogant, spiteful and rude – not a person you want to cross. As they settle in and try to do a good job, we see how migrant workers have traditionally been treated. And when tragedy befalls the farm, we see how their migrant status affects both men.

The Roma people, too, have a tradition of moving around and staying nowhere for very long. Stef Penney explores life among these people in The Invisible Ones. In that novel, Leon Janko hires PI Ray Lovell to find his daughter Rose, who’s been missing for seven years. At first Lovell demurs, saying that missing person cases aren’t his area of expertise. But Janko insists, and then explains that he wants Lovell because Lovell is half Roma.

‘You’re always who you are, even sitting here in your office, behind your fancy desk. You’re one of us.’

Janko says that Lovell will be able to talk to people in ways that gorijos (non-Roma) will not. Finally Lovell is persuaded to look into the matter. He’s soon dismayed by the resistance he gets from the Jankos, especially considering that it was Leon Janko who hired him. It’s soon clear that they’re hiding something that may very well relate to Rose’s disappearance. As Lovell investigates further, readers get a real sense of what life is like for people who never live anywhere for very long.

In Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich, a Roma girl who allegedly fell into a canal from a Venice roof after robbing an apartment in the building. Brunetti begins to wonder just how accidental the girl’s death was, though, and investigates. His search for the truth leads him to the Roma encampment near the city. As he tries to work with the victim’s people, we see what their lives are like, and why they have very little reason to trust Brunetti, at least at first.

You might not think of it right away, but circus workers are also often itinerant. They may stay for a couple of months in one place, but they spend much of their time ‘on the road.’ That’s what we see, for instance, in Catriona McPherson’s The Winter Ground. The Cooke family circus is happy that they’ve been given permission to stay on the Blackcraig Estate for the winter. As compensation, they’ve agreed to do a few shows for the wealthy Wilson family, who own the place. There are some concerns about having ‘those kinds of people’ around for the winter, but Dandelion ‘Dandy’ Gilver’s two sons couldn’t be happier; they want to see the circus. Then, some nasty events begin to happen in the circus, and Mrs. Cooke wants an end to it. She asks Dandy to investigate. Things go from bad to worse when Anastasia ‘Ana,’ the bareback horse rider, falls from her mount and is killed. At first it looks like a terrible accident, but it’s not long before Dandy begins to believe it was murder.

A circus also plays a role in Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes. New York Homicide Bureau Detective Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk when he sees a young woman about to jump off a bridge. He stops her just in time, and takes her to a nearby all-night diner, where she tells him her story. She is Jean Reid, only child of wealthy Harlan Reid. Her mother died when she was two years old; otherwise, her life had been a more or less happy one until recently. In a very strange series of events, Harlan Reid met a man named Jeremiah Tompkins, a man who, as he himself puts it, is cursed with being able to predict the future. Despite warnings, and against his daughter’s wishes, Reid began to visit Tompkins more and more often, whenever he was faced with an important decision. Now Tompkins has predicted that Reid will die on a certain night at midnight. Reid firmly believes that it will happen, and Jean can no longer tolerate the stress. Shawn decides to help her if he can, and takes her to his boss, McManus, to see what the police can do. After all, since Reid is a wealthy man, this could simply be a scam to get his money. That part of the investigation leads to an itinerant circus and another murder investigation. In the meantime, Shawn tries to protect the Reids as well as he can, in case the threat to the family is real. Among other things, this novel offers a glimpse of what it means to travel in a circus, and how ‘circus people’ are viewed from the outside.

Of course, there are some fictional sleuths, too, who don’t really have a ‘regular’ home. Yes, I mean you, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Eleanor Kuhn’s Will Rees is another example of a sleuth who’s a bit of an itinerant. He’s a late-18th Century weaver who goes from place to place on commission. He’s recently married Lydia Farrell, a former member of the Shaker sect. As the series goes on, it’ll be interesting to see how his roving life changes.

Itinerant people often live outside the realm of what we think of as ‘normal.’ They usually have relatively few possessions or connections, and they have a unique culture based on moving around. Perhaps that’s part of what makes them such interesting characters in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by John Phillips, made famous by The Mamas and the Papas. See whether you like that version or the recording done by The Fifth Dimension better.


Filed under Catriona McPherson, Cornell Woolrich, Donna Leon, Eleanor Kuhns, John Steinbeck, Lee Child, Stef Penney