Picks and Pans Review: Coyote

updated 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/24/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Linda Barnes

Manuela Estefan has a problem and not many places to turn to for a solution. Carlotta Carlyle is a full-time Boston detective and part-time cab driver with a knack for helping people solve problems. It seems natural, therefore, for Estefan to turn up in Carlyle's apartment relating a tale of a missing green card and a dead body bearing her name. Since Estefan's English is weak and Carlyle's Spanish even weaker, the dialogue moves at an ineffective pace until:

"She grabbed at her chest, and her skin got pale and blotchy. She made a motion in the air, like she was clutching a glass, drinking, and she said, 'Por favor, senorita.'

"I figured she needed a glass of water, if not something a hell of a lot stronger, so I sped out to the kitchen.

"It must have taken me all of thirty seconds, finding a relatively clean glass, running the tap water till it was as clear as Cambridge water gets. I didn't even take time to see if Roz had stocked up on scotch.

"When I got back, she was gone."

This first elusive meeting thrusts Carlotta into an underground system of illegal aliens and the "coyotes" who live off their labors. By taking the case, Carlotta enters an arena where noncitizens are paid small amounts to work long hours in places stained with sweat. It is an ugly, uncompromising world in which criminal acts—murder included—are easily concealed.

The desperate coyotes, however, more than meet their match in the 6'-tall, redheaded Carlyle, the half-Irish. half-Jewish ex-cop who is the most refreshing, creative female character to hit mystery fiction since Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone.

As Carlyle delves deeper into a puzzle thick with blood, she gets down to two people who can most help her—Carlotta's little sister, Paolina, a teenager who knows more than she's willing to let on, and an immigration agent who's involved in more than a simple murder investigation. Every step of the way, the writing is solid, the plot has a basketful of red herrings, and the characters are all thought out and finely tuned.

This is the third and best Barnes novel to feature Carlyle (A Trouble of Fools, The Snake Tattoo) and offers the reader a promising glimpse into Carlotta's future. Grafton, Sara Paretsky and the other First Ladies of Crime better just watch their backs. (Delacorte, $18.95)

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