POPULAR FICTION

Sarum: The Novel of England, by Edward Rutherfurd. New York: Crown Publishers Inc. 898 pp. $19.95. ``Sarum'' is a medieval Latin name for the town, the diocese, and the area of Salisbury, England. Rutherfurd has used the Salisbury area, which includes Stonehenge, as a microcosm of English history from the end of the last ice age to the present day.

His engrossing, well-written, and thoroughly researched historical novel contains maps, a family tree, and chapters on the building of Stonehenge, the Roman occupation, the building of Salisbury Cathedral, the Black Death, the Wars of the Roses, the Reformation, the Civil War, the Battle of Trafalgar, and World War II. Each of these chapters could stand on its own.

Tying these events together are the generations of five fictional families, whose lives and fortunes reflect the social, political, and economic changes that occur in England. Rutherfurd is strong on the explication of trends and the narration of events. But he relies heavily on the repetition of character types. Nevertheless, ``Sarum'' is fascinating and will appeal to Anglophiles, history buffs, and fans of epic-style novels. The Silk Vendetta, by Victoria Holt. New York: Doubleday. 425 pp. $17.95.

The Edict of Nantes, which in 1598 had granted considerable religious freedom to French Protestants, the Huguenots, was revoked in 1685. Thousands of Huguenots, many of them skilled artisans, fled to England.

This is the historical premise of the 26th novel by the reigning queen of romantic suspense. Set in 19th-century England and France, it concerns the rivalry between two silk-manufacturing families - the English Sallongers, descendants of Huguenots, and their French cousins, the Roman Catholic St. Alleng`eres - and the young woman who links them.

Lenore Cleremont, an illegitimate daughter of the St. Alleng`eres, is raised in the Sallonger household and marries the younger son. After he is killed, she opens a dressmaking salon and meets a dashing French nobleman, who helps her uncover her family's secrets.

This romantic novel makes enjoyable reading in spite of a few anachronisms and some unsurprising solutions to its mysteries. The Black Dahlia, by James Ellroy. New York: The Mysterious Press. 325 pp. $16.95.

Based on a true unsolved murder case, ``The Black Dahlia'' is the novelistic equivalent of a film noir. It's evocative of such 1940s black-and-white film classics as ``Laura'' and ``The Blue Dahlia.''

In spite of its late '40s atmosphere, however, this novel is very much of the 1980s - with sex, violence, offensive language, and the gritty details of police work presented in living color.

Ellroy has skillfully woven the facts about the ``Black Dahlia'' - the media's name for Elizabeth Short, a 22-year-old Massachusetts native, whose body was found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1947 - into his story of two policemen who become obsessed with her. Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard are boxing rivals, partners, and best friends, who love the same woman.

In spite of a great number of sordid details, the novel is engaging. Bucky, the narrator, is a sympathetic character, whose sensibilities are offended by the sleazy aspects of his job. A Fatal Inversion, by Barbara Vine. New York: Bantam Books. 268 pp. $14.95.

This is British mystery writer Ruth Rendell's second novel published under the pseudonym of Barbara Vine. The first, ``A Dark-Adapted Eye,'' won a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award.

Both Vine novels display Rendell's hallmarks - good writing, excellent characterization and atmosphere, suspenseful plot, and a sociological depiction of contemporary British life.

In this latest novel the bones of a woman and a child are unearthed in a pet cemetery on the grounds of an English country house. This macabre discovery dismays the former owner and his friends, with whom he spent a fateful summer 10 years earlier.

Rendell's novels are frequently disturbing because they probe the dark side of the human psyche, and therein lies some of their fascination. But this novel's unsavory events are not offset by a single likable character. The Five Bells and Bladebone, by Martha Grimes. Boston: Little, Brown & Comany. 299 pp. $15.95.

Martha Grimes's ninth mystery novel featuring Superintendent Richard Jury of Scotland Yard is one of her best.

Jury becomes involved in two murder investigations. One takes place in Long Piddleton (the home of his friend Melrose Plant and the scene of his first case, ``The Man With a Load of Mischief''). The other is in London's Limehouse district.

The murder victims, Simon Lean and Sadie Diver, were lovers, and Simon's wife, Hannah, the granddaughter of wealthy Lady Summerston, is the spitting image of Sadie. The familiar scene and cast of characters are freshened by the addition of some new characters. They include an eccentric romance novelist, an unscrupulous bookseller, and a conniving femme fatale.

The novel's pace is both leisurely and suspenseful, and there is a humorous subplot involving Plant's odious Aunt Agatha and her day in court over a minor traffic accident.

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