Stef Penney won the 2006 Costa Book of the Year for The Tenderness of Wolves, a great achievement for a first book. A haunting thriller set in the wilds of Canada in 1867, the novel had an interesting background: agoraphobic Penney was unable to get on a plane and had never been to Canada. Instead, she used canny research into the archives of the Hudson’s Bay Company to craft a compelling tale about the murder of a trapper.
Although she has now overcome her agoraphobia, the setting of her follow-up is southern England. This time the closed and secretive community she depicts is that of Romany gypsies. As the book opens, Ray Lovell, a private investigator, is lying in hospital, barely conscious, remembering his last nightmarish image of an unknown woman climbing on top of him, “straddling me, grinding her hips against mine”. It all goes back to his latest case, but what does it mean?
Wolves was much concerned with the fate of missing women; a by-plot had the teenage Seton girls disappear into the snowy woods, possibly taken by Indians. Here, the missing girl is timid Rose, 19 when she married Ivo Janko, a gypsy of the “pure black blood”. She vanished soon after giving birth to and rejecting Christo, her disabled son; at least that’s what the Jankos all say.
Lovell is a gypsy name, and though Ray is “gorjified” (gorjios are non-gypsies), Rose’s father persuades him to take the case. His community will not talk to the police, but may well open up to one of their own kind.
Ray pays a visit to the family’s site, meeting patriarch Tene, Ivo, Christo and JJ, his cousin. Christo, now seven years old and as meek and patient as his name suggests, is the latest victim of the family curse. He has inherited a genetic blood disorder from his father, Ivo, who was however miraculously cured of the condition at Lourdes as a teenager.
Penney’s portrayal of the gypsy way of life is sympathetic. Seemingly bizarre customs are given a context; strong love is set against deadening control. The first-person narration is shared between Ray and JJ, who every now and then forgets he’s a 14-year-old-boy and talks like a literary construct. Sweet and well-meaning, he comes across as the travellers’ Adrian Mole; but his narration enables us to see what Ray’s not seeing, to remain both inside and outside the mystery.
Although Penney seems to have taken a decisive turn towards straight crime fiction, the pace is slow and the body-count low. Ray, of course, has to be flawed and have a messy private life. In Wolves, the perpetrator is identified but also depersonalised. You could just as well say that Canada killed the trapper, or white hubris. Here, the answer to the mystery is so precisely engineered that it is not believable.
Both books feel longer than they need to be. Perhaps it’s this expansiveness that gives them their literary sheen. The most memorable passages tend to be those that have least to do with pursuing the plot, such as Ivo’s return trip to Lourdes with JJ, Christo and their grandmother, which is a marvellously atmospheric piece of writing. However, the bagginess also means that the tedious nature of investigation is rather too well evoked.
The Invisible Ones, by Stef Penney, Quercus, RRP£18.99, 350 pages