Stop me if you've heard this one: A man wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how he got there. The gambit has been used before, but it's still a sturdy hook in Scottish writer Stef Penney's new mystery The Invisible Ones.
Private investigator Ray Lovell's last case apparently has gone very wrong, since he lies paralyzed and hallucinating. It's the 1980s, and Lovell had been hired to find a Romany girl who went missing seven years before. The girl's dad, Leon Wood, doesn't trust the police. Lovell, whose firm is floundering and just about broke, gets the job based on his background: Ray's dad was a Rom who gave up the traveling life. As Lovell investigates, he discovers that Rose was a quiet, unhappy girl who nobody cared about enough to miss after she disappeared.
Penney, whose debut novel, “The Tenderness of Wolves,” won the 2006 Costa Book Award, isn't the first mystery writer to field a half-Romany detective, but Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey series is a romance set in the 19th century. There's nothing romantic about “The Invisible Ones” — while Ray misses his estranged wife to the point of stalking her, a would-be relationship is the weakest element of the plot.
Penney doesn't romanticize her characters: Instead of colorful wagons, there are Vickers and Westmorland Star trailers, and stew pots have been replaced by canned goods and bags of crisps. And no one plays the violin.
Even in the closed world of the Romany, Rose's in-laws, the Jankos, are considered loners. Penney toggles chapters between Ray and J.J. Janko, a 14-year-old cousin of Rose's husband, Ivo, who's a far more engaging narrator than Ray. J.J. and the rest of the Jankos are desperately worried about Ivo's son, Christo, who suffers from a rare blood disorder that afflicts male Jankos. Ivo had the same condition as a child, but a trip to Lourdes “miraculously” cured him. While Ray gets further than a gorjio detective would, the Jankos lie, obfuscate, and block him at every turn. Then a skeleton turns up at a long-ago campsite.
Penney has thoroughly researched her world and neatly confounds readers' expectations on at least two occasions. But while it is also about a disappearance, “The Invisible Ones” doesn't have the visceral grip of “The Tenderness of Wolves.”