Sleuths of the male, female, and feline variety are featured in several recent whodunits set in North America and Europe. Designed to keep arm-chair detectives enthralled, these books entertain with varying degrees of success.
THE TITIAN COMMITTEE, by Iain Pears (Harcourt Brace, 189 pp., $19.95). High marks go to Pears, an English art historian, who offers readers an engaging follow-up to his first fictional work, ``The Raphael Affair.'' Headstrong Flavia di Stefano of the Italian National Art Theft Squad is back on the job when a member of a committee studying Italian Renaissance painter Titian is murdered in Venice. The victim is an American professor, and the suspects are the surviving committee members - until they too start showing up dead. When some ostensibly unrelated paintings disappear, Flavia and English art-buyer Jonathan Argyll comb the city trying to discover what the professor was researching and why it got her killed. Pears has created a bright young investigator in Flavia, who never does detective work on an empty stomach and whose rather unorthodox views on justice are revealed in the story's finale. Venetian landmarks and details of Titian's life contribute to the novel's appeal.
DIVINE INSPIRATION, by Jane Langton (Viking, 406 pp., $20). What Pears does for art, Langton does for music in her 10th mystery featuring cop-turned-Harvard-professor Homer Kelly. The arrival of a new pipe organ at the fictitious Church of the Commonwealth in Boston's Back Bay inaugurates this cleverly written yarn and prompts the unexplained departure of several of Beantown's best organists, one of whom has left without her toddler son. The abandoned tot is rescued by Alan Starr, an organ builder who is installing the church's new 2,760-pipe behemoth. Starr, Kelly, and Kelly's wife, Mary, join forces to find the missing mother and figure out who is vandalizing other organs. Red herrings and subplots abound as the story winds to its surprising conclusion. Langton's line drawings and discussions of Boston, pipe organs, and theology complement her witty tale.
THE CAT WHO CAME TO BREAKFAST, by Lilian Jackson Braun (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 254 pp., $19.95). Mustachioed millionaire journalist Jim ``Qwill'' Qwilleran gets his crime-solving inspiration from his ``animal companions'' - two Siamese cats named Koko and Yum Yum. In their latest adventure, Qwill packs up typewriter, cats, and litter box and sets off to investigate the mishaps at the new resort on the isle of Breakfast. Qwill, who can sense trouble whenever his upper lip tingles, interviews natives and Brahmin summer residents to determine if someone is deliberately killing new tourists. The piece de resistance in solving this lightweight puzzler are the clues Qwill gets from Koko when they play dominoes: The cat pushes dominoes on the floor with his tail, Qwill adds the dots and matches them with their corresponding alphabet letters, and voila! - instant names. While fans may be charmed by Qwill's faith in the communicative powers of his feline, the repeated use of the clairvoyant cat is a bit tiresome.
DEATH OF A TRAVELLING MAN, by M.C. Beaton (St. Martin's Press, 151 pp., $17.95). This novel's title leaves little doubt about the fate of the handsome drifter introduced on Page 2. But Sean Gourlay does not meet his demise until halfway through the slim volume, allowing readers to get acquainted with the quirky residents of the Scottish village of Lochdubh first. The modest hamlet is transformed for the worse by Gourlay's presence - leaving redheaded police sergeant Hamish Macbeth skeptical about his intentions. When not worrying about what Gourlay is up to, Macbeth is rescuing children, bemoaning the shortcomings of his new cleaning-obsessed sidekick, and figuring out how to stay on good terms with his natty friend Priscilla, who teases him about his wandering eye. Scottish writer M.C. Beaton develops the locals with humor and verve in the latest Macbeth installment, and those readers patient enough to wait for the murder will be rewarded with the diligent sleuthing of Lochdubh's capable constable.