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A Whydunit and a Howdunit

THE DANTE GAME. By Jane Langton, Illustrations by the author, Viking, 327 pp., $18.95.

BODY OF EVIDENCE. By Patricia D. Cornwell, Charles Scribner's Sons, 387 pp., $18.95

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GIVEN the enormous popularity of mysteries these days, mystery writers are more than happy to meet every reader's taste. Some fans want to savor every technical detail; others prefer to keep any actual nastiness far off stage, using the mystery form as a passport to exotic locales.

Here are two options to keep most readers satisfied.

"The Dante Game" is a literate novel with charming characters, a setting to pack your bags for - and pictures.

The latest in Jane Langton's series featuring Homer Kelly finds the professor from Concord, Mass. ("that guy at Harvard who used to be a detective"), in Florence. Why? For differing reasons, two professors - Lucretia Ott and Giovanni Zibo - open the American School of Florentine Studies in a crumbling villa outside Florence. Their Boston-based trustees suggest Homer to teach contemporary Italian literature. He's reluctant, but his wife Mary sweeps them along, saying "Let's read 'The Divine Comedy.' It's one of the supreme works of art in the Western world, and it's been out since the 14th century, so it's high time."

A staff is assembled, students are signed up, and all portents seem favorable. But if everything went favorably there'd be no book, so before too many swallows of cappuccino, the Italian maid and her lover are found, thoroughly dead, with a strange verse from "The Divine Comedy" by their bodies.

Before long, Julia, the school's most beautiful and sought-after student, is kidnapped. Homer, at first reluctantly and then with typical gusto, throws himself about the city in search of Julia - and answers to the murders.

Except this really isn't a whodunit. We know who's behind everything almost right away. It's a whydunit (albeit with a neat twist at the end); and in finding out why, the author takes the reader on a tour of Florence that makes your heart just ache to be there. How subtly Langton displays the glories of the city. Never heavy-handed, she lets the words - and those delicately alluring sketches - find the way right into your heart.

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Homer is a most passive character here. Julia makes a fine heroine, never weak or soppy, but not offensively abrasive. But the real star of the book is Florence, with its art, its architecture, its people.

If your budget won't permit hopping the next plane to Florence, you will at least be on the way to the nearest library, to check out books about Florence and by Jane Langton. You may even feel up to rereading "The Divine Comedy."

Dramatically different is "Body of Evidence," a mystery that will fascinate technically inclined readers. "I can't envision something unless I've seen it," author Patricia Cornwell has said.

Readers will think there couldn't be much left out. This book, like her first, "Postmortem," features Kay Scarpetta, chief medical examiner for the city of Richmond, Va. But there are no gratuitous graphic scenes - everything is described as seen through the logical, medical eyes of Dr. Scarpetta.

"Body of Evidence" opens with writer Beryl Madison huddling in Key West, Fla. She's fled there because of threats made against her life in Richmond, Va. And yet when she returns home, she is soon found dead in her house, viciously murdered. There are no signs of forced entry, which means that she willingly let in her killer.

The path to finding Madison's killer is circuitous. In her past is a famous, reclusive, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and his equally reclusive sister, with whom Beryl had lived for years. And there's the lawyer who says he's Beryl's agent. And what about the man from Scarpetta's past, who mysteriously reappears, only to disappear again?

The doctor's attention to detail in the morgue not only provides the leads for finding the killer, but the impetus for the reader's attention. Squeamish readers might have to rush their eyes hurriedly over a paragraph or two but that same analysis brings the reader back.

No less fascinating, but less ghoulish, are Scarpetta's scientific finds based on evidence found on the body. A peculiar white powder, for example, or threads found in strange places. Even today's controversial DNA testing is discussed here.

Considering all the lifeless things into which she injects so much life, it's almost ironic that the heroine remains, sadly, so lifeless. Somehow, the good, admirable, intelligent Scarpetta never turns into a sympathetic character.

Cornwell does a better job with lesser characters, chief among them the generic slob detective, Marino. Maybe it's his looseness in contrast to Scarpetta's stiffness, but the pages sparkle some when Marino's around.

One final quibble. Cornwell has written only two books - was it necessary for the killer to be discovered in the same way in both books?

Cornwell is too talented to let something like that go on, though. Her staid Scarpetta can lead where she will. As long as Cornwell continues to put most of the emphasis on the um ... less breathable parts of the evidence, I'll be there to follow along. It's kind of hard to read with your eyes shut.

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