The last two outings for Professor Kate Fansler--Death in a Tenured Position; Sweet Death, Kind Death--have been thudding disappointments: terminally arch, gracelessly polemical in their feminism, poorly paced and ineptly plotted. So this new, frankly offbeat entry, which doesn't even try for conventional murder-mystery effects, comes as a moderately welcome surprise. The ""Winifred"" of the title is a 50-ish American writer, ""honorary niece"" of the late, great British novelist Charlotte Stanton--who disappears in the midst of London arrangements regarding the Stanton estate and a Stanton biography. (All this faintly Jamesian material is nicely conveyed via Winifred's journals--and not, blessedly, through talk.) So Kate, a friend of Stanton's would-be biographer, sets out to locate Winifred. . .or her corpse. Winifred's life--as an unhappy Ohio girl (she wanted to be a boy), as an enthralled visitor to Oxford, as a recluse who supported herself by farm work--is explored. And the trail leads to an MLA Convention in NY, where Kate learns about Winifred's secret private-life-which combined heterosexual adultery and intense female friendship in an ultimately explosive triangle. Despite some halfhearted red herrings, this is more character-study than mystery, with familiar (even dated) themes involving gender stereotypes and female camaraderie. But it's far more lively, varied, and charming than those recent Fansler cases--with less preciousness, some fair MLA satire, and a simple, fairly appealing love-story at the heart of it all.