Like many a literary gumshoe before him, private investigator Ray Lovell has a weakness for women, strong liquor and hard-luck tales. Thus, the tortured hero of Stef Penney’s luminous second novel, The Invisible Ones, finds himself swept up in the mystery and mayhem of a pack of traveling Gypsies when he is hired to find a young Romany woman, Rose Janko, who has disappeared from northern England without a trace.

To those with a penchant for Romany-themed literature—books like Colum McCann’s Zoli, for example—The Invisible Ones is sure to prove enchanting. For this reader, it was absolutely impossible to put down. From the opening chapter, when Ray awakens in a London hospital bed, stricken by hallucinations and paralysis, Penney’s formidable literary gifts will hypnotize readers. The tale is told as a dual narrative, in chapters that alternate between the musings of middle-aged private investigator Ray and the angst-drenched reflections of an adolescent boy, JJ. Torn between his love and loyalties for his Gypsy/Romany family and his fervent desire to assimilate with his gorjio—non-Romany—peers at school, JJ portrays his plight with a young boy’s curiosity, wit and idealism.

Ray, who is half Romany himself, finds himself forced to reckon with ghosts from his past as he investigates the Jankos. Simultaneously smitten by and wary of the inhabitants of this mystical netherland of hardscrabble trailer homes, Ray forges a friendship with JJ, providing the youngster with a much-needed male role model, and himself with a sense of fatherhood.

While the novel’s rich subplots are brimming with romance, family pathos and details of Romany culture, The Invisible Ones remains a mystery at heart. Author Penney, who lives in Scotland, won the Costa Award for Book of the Year with her 2007 debut, The Tenderness of Wolves, set in 1860s Canada. Her very different but equally absorbing second novel is sure to mesmerize readers from page one until its shocking, albeit deeply satisfying, ending.

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