BOOKS IN BRIEF

It's no secret why mysteries are popular: They give their readers a chance to escape - to a place in time, a place in mind, or just a place to unwind. Here are three mysteries to keep the world at bay for a few hours.

CATILINA'S RIDDLE, by Steven Saylor (St. Martin's Press, 430 pp., $22.95). It's Rome, the year 63 BC, and what do we find? Corrupt politics, sneaky politicians, greedy underlings - it might as well be yesterday in Washington.

Yet readers will escape with pleasure into this lush, meticulously portrayed world of ancient Rome. That's because Steven Saylor - the author of two previous titles in this series - is as much historian as he is weaver of suspense, as Gordianus the Finder tries to unravel murder both personal and political. Dead bodies keep turning up at the farm Gordianus thought he longed for: And just what is Cicero up to with that radical Catilina back in Rome?

Some passages are didactic, and some characters recite lines merely to relay information. But Saylor's re-creation of Roman life - from food and dress to customs and culture (the portrayal of slave ownership is especially eye-opening) - is reason enough to stick with this rich, enriching series.

THE CROCODILE BIRD, by Ruth Rendell (Crown, 361 pp., $20). No one can take you so totally into the recesses of the human mind as does Ruth Rendell.

In her latest book, a mother decides to raise her daughter, Liza, in almost total isolation in the English countryside. But modern life, of course, will intrude. Why and how this slow but total intrusion takes place is the fascination underlying the story.

There is no ``whodunit'' to this mystery. As always, Rendell is preoccupied with the motivation behind the act. As Liza recounts her bizarre life history, we're intrigued but also a little nervous; there is a certain longing for such an unfettered life, yet we know - especially in Rendell's hand - that it can never be so simple. This is one you'll savor for the characters, not the plot.

MRS. POLLIFAX AND THE SECOND THIEF, by Dorothy Gilman (Doubleday, 201 pp., $20.). Pure let's-travel-and don't-worry fluff. Dorothy Gilman, who's had Emily Pollifax appear in nine other books, brings the grandmother and part-time CIA operative back.

Sensible and smart Emily is off to Sicily to help a former agent and to uncover some nasty doings in the art world. There is nothing off-putting about Emily: She's not heartily spunky or anything awful like that. Yet this book, admittedly my first encounter with Mrs. Pollifax, left me feeling totally neutral. It wasn't annoying, yet it created no urge to read any other Mrs. Pollifax adventure. But it is easy to understand the appeal of this calm, mature woman and her exotic plot-settings.

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