Book review: The Stolen by T. S. Learner

The inhuman treatment of the European Roma gypsies during the Holocaust has long haunted playwright and novelist T.S.Learner…
The Stolen by T. S. LearnerThe Stolen by T. S. Learner
The Stolen by T. S. Learner

And when you are a talented thriller writer who likes to inform as well as entertain, what better way to raise the profile of a dark episode in history than to put it at the heart of a pulsating, page-turning novel?

Under the Nazi regime, the Roma were subjected to arbitrary internment, forced labour and mass murder. The Germans murdered tens of thousands of gypsies in the Soviet Union and Serbia and thousands more in the concentration camps, and their gold and valuables were hunted down and stolen.

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Learner, whose previous novels Sphinx and The Map were sculpted from impeccable research and a bedrock of supernatural sorcery, blends history and mystery in a new adventure story that shocks and thrills in equal measure.

In the early hours of the morning in Zurich in 1982, an ageing Kalderash Roma gypsy is shot dead outside the offices of the exclusive Holindt Watch Company. In his pocket is a sketch of the firm’s emblem, on his wrist is the tattooed number of Buchenwald death camp and laced between his fingers is a raven’s wing placed there by the assassin.

The maverick Swiss-German Detective Helmut Klauser, noted for his ‘unorthodox methodology,’ believes that the watch company’s wealthy but seriously ill owner Christoph von Holindt is somehow implicated in the death but will first have to search out some shadowy secrets.

Von Holindt’s estranged son Matthias, an atomic physicist on the verge of a discovery that will free the world from dependence on carbon-based fuels, is soon dragged into the police inquiry.

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And Matthias has his own problems. His beloved wife Marie was killed in a skiing accident four years ago and their teenage daughter Liliane is suffering from hallucinogenic episodes in which she is swept into the mind of her mother in the moments before she died.

Forty years earlier in the Ukraine, a young Kalderash gypsy girl called Keja who is gifted with second sight, watches in horror as her family are wiped out by a group of SS soldiers and their most precious possession, a priceless holy relic, is stolen by the commanding officer.

She and her brother are the only survivors and before she is captured she mouths an ancient and powerful curse to avenge her father’s death. The ‘curse of all curses’ will bring about the most terrible death that can be wished on a living soul.

Back in the present, it us up to Matthias and Klauser to hunt for the truth, vanquish an evil cabal and save the lost treasure whose mystical powers cannot be contained. But the stakes are high and the quest will have profound and devastating consequences for Matthias…

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The Stolen is a brilliantly atmospheric, psychologically taut and heart-thumping tale of cruelty, greed, determination, resilience and revenge, and the most ambitious and successful project yet for an author who likes to keep her eye firmly fixed on real history.

Packed with bold characters, vivid action sequences, a sensational blend of fact and fiction and a dark slice of the past, this is a rip-roaring and yet thought-provoking blockbuster.

(Sphere, paperback, £6.99)