Medieval monk, police inspector and cabbie on the trail of crime MYSTERIES

February 03, 1991|By Suzanne Trowbridge

Brother Cadfael, the 12th century monk who stars in Ellis Peters' medieval mysteries, is a most unusual but thoroughly delightful "detective." He also has proven extremely popular; "The Potter's Field" (Mysterious Press, 230 pages, $16.95) is Ms. Peters' 17th entry in the Cadfael chronicles.

A local landowner gives a large field to Brother Cadfael's Benedictine abbey. It appears to be the perfect plot of land for a crop of wheat or barley. But shortly after the monks start to plow, they uncover a long tress of hair.

A woman lies buried in the black, rich soil of Potter's Field -- dead at least a year, by Cadfael's reckoning. After viewing the remains, the abbot voices his suspicion to Cadfael that the victim might well be Generys, a beautiful young woman who disappeared many months before.

Complicating matters is the fact that Generys had been married to Ruald, a potter who left his worldly life behind to join the Benedictines. Could the saintly, gentle Brother Ruald have murdered his wife? Or did Generys escape with a lover, as local legend has it, and the mysterious bones once were some other woman?

"The Potter's Field" is an intriguing mystery, offering several unexpected twists, but it's also well worth reading for the fascinating descriptions of monastic life. The scene in which Brother Ruald finally is forced to confront the pain he caused his wife is particularly poignant. "Tell me, Cadfael," asks Ruald, "do you think there was ever any man ready to forgo even heaven, to stay with another soul who loved him, in purgatory?"

A neighborhood with a name as macabre as the one that provides the title to Peter Robinson's "Gallows View" (Scribners, 225 pages, $17.95) surely must be the perfect setting for a murder. An elderly woman is found dead in her home, apparently killed during the course of a robbery. For Chief Inspector Alan Banks, a newly transplanted Londoner, the murder is yet another indication that the bucolic town of Eastvale, Yorkshire, is in the midst of a virtual crime wave.

Banks has to cope with a frighteningly persistent peeping Tom and a rash of break-ins, crimes that may or may not be related to the murder in Gallows View. A beautiful psychologist is brought in to help the police develop a profile of the voyeur, and soon even the personal life of the happily married Banks is in a muddle as he finds himself increasingly attracted to her.

"Coyote" (Delacorte, 257 pages, $18.95) is Linda Barnes' third book featuring private eye and part-time cabbie Carlotta Carlyle. The few hours a week she spends driving a taxi provide Carlotta with a much-needed source of extra income, since detecting isn't always the most lucrative enterprise. "I'd mailed a third bill to a woman whose runaway daughter I'd retrieved, printing 'final notice' in red at the bottom of the page and wondering just what the hell I was going to do if she continued to ignore me," complains Carlotta. "Repossess the daughter?"

Carlotta's latest adventure begins when she is visited by a Spanish-speaking woman who wants the detective to retrieve her missing green card. When Carlotta steps out of the room for a moment, the woman disappears, leaving five crisp $100 bills behind.

As Carlotta searches for her mysterious visitor, she is drawn into the murky underworld of illegal immigrants and "coyotes," the guides who lead illegals to America and supply them with false papers for a price.

It's always a pleasure to spend time with this zesty detective, even if "Coyote" is hampered a bit by its pluck-at-the-heartstrings subplot involving the disappearance of the young Colombian girl Carlotta befriended through the Big Sisters Association. But Carlotta has class and spirit to spare, and "Coyote" is a brisk, energetic mystery.

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer living in Baltimore.

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