It is – yes – basically, a medieval mystery, and the story is set in Easter Ross, which is the area immediately to the south of the Dornoch Firth (in the north east of Scotland – there should be a map!), while the first and last chapters take place in London and act as a kind of frame. In the opening chapter we meet Mariana, the narrator and heroine (a good idea if you come to this novel first, as I did, without having read any other Mariana stories) in the company of the demanding and self-indulgent Princess Joan, mother of the young King Richard.
Mariana – Lady Marian MacElpin – was born and grew up in the south of Spain, where she is known as Doña Mariana de la Manga, but her father was a Scot in exile and this visit to Scotland, which is her first, is partly a result of depression – she is fed up with her life in London, where she has made her home, and needs a break – but also a long-planned search for her roots.
She finds her grandmother, who turns out to be a witch. She befriends a group of “little people” dismissed derisively by the local people as “tinklers” but also superstitiously feared by them as shape-shifters and mermaids. The little people are in fact the “Elps”, and Mariana herself, it transpires, has Elpin blood in her (she has Elpin eyes, everyone says, she swims like a mermaid – and consider her name!)
Then she gets caught up in a mystery involving various foreigners, including Raoul, her ancien amour from Paris, and a murder which “smacks of witchcraft“. The suspects are two young Moorish slaves. As only Mariana speaks their language she is asked to interpret for them, which she does willingly, believing them to be innocent and wanting to help. The interpreting develops, predictably, into a full-scale investigation, in the course of which she falls foul of a certain Brother Arsenius, a Black Friar and Inquisitor, and quite the nastiest piece of work I have come across in a book for a long time – with the possible exception of the Master Executioner’s odious son and apprentice, Kenneth.
But it is the background, the world – so beautifully described – in which the story is set, the people – beings – among whom it takes place, that you remember. There are the Elps, the little people of ancient Nordic tradition with “golden hair and green kirtles”, who inhabit the forests and coasts still, as they always have, though now few in number and the prey of ‘heroic’ hunters like the loathsome Sir Hugh, but also still the object of fear and fantasy – do they shape-shift, for example, do they change into mermaids, or wulcats (wildcats)? There are rumours of the ancient Shelts and of Elpi sheltimen who have inherited the shamanistic culture of the original Shelts and go on shamanic journeys to “sheltiworlds”. There is the Queen of Elphame (Elfhame) herself. There are witches, including Mariana’s grandmother, the Witch of Balintore (whose tale of her trip to America and her terrifying experiences there – in the mid-fourteenth century! – you will never forget.) And there is the wonderful “glaistig” Coll, a kind of water-nymph, caught and enslaved by the brutal Thorfinn Skinner: Coll’s encounter with Raoul, as described by him in a letter to Mariana at the end of the book, is also completely unforgettable.