A Cross-Century Numbers Game. BOOKS

THE EIGHT by Katherine Neville, New York: Ballantine Books, 550 pp. $18.95

THERE is no hard-and-fast boundary between ``literary'' and ``popular'' fiction. Some indubitably great works of literature have also enjoyed great popular success. Not all purportedly ``literary'' works possess the literary merit they promise. Not all ``popular,'' or ``commercial,'' works achieve the best-sellerdom their authors and publishers hope for. Yet, despite many exceptions to the rule, most people find it fairly easy to tell a ``literary'' novel from a ``popular'' one.

It would seem a reasonable enough demand that reviewers of popular novels should not just condemn all commercial fiction out of hand, but should endeavor instead to distinguish among the higher and lower grades of the product. Along these lines, one might say, on the plus side, that Katherine Neville's novel ``The Eight'' is more than usually suspenseful, has an ingenious plot, and is written in a style that, if undistinguished, is at least fluent and unobjectionable. It contains the standard violence and sex (less sex), but neither is handled exploitatively.

The novel has two heroines (of cardboard depth, but resourceful and dashing enough to please most feminists) and the complicated plot is based on the intertwining of their stories. The first takes place in the 1790s.

Mireille de Remy is a novice at the Montglane Abbey, where pieces of a legendary chess set, the Montglane Service, have been hidden away since the time of Charlemagne. Against the background of the French Revolution, Mireille risks her life to prevent the pieces - reputed to have magical properties - from falling into the wrong hands. She becomes involved with a cast of characters that includes Napoleon, Talleyrand, Catherine the Great, Robespierre, Marat, Charlotte Corday, and the painter David, with cameo appearances by Wordsworth, Blake, Boswell, Benedict Arnold, and many more.

The second story begins in 1972, when computer expert Catherine Velis is posted to Algiers, where the meeting of an as-yet little-known group called OPEC is about to commence. Before leaving New York, Catherine has a strange experience at a chess tournament and finds herself at the center of a puzzle whose dimensions, players, and design she has not yet begun to fathom.

As the two tales unfold, two centuries apart, it is hinted that important historical events - particularly those involving the getting, using, and losing of power - are somehow related to a mysterious chess game and to the number 8. In the courses of their action-packed adventures, Mireille and Catherine discover more and more clues, from the archaic rituals encoded in the game of chess to the manifold significance of the number 8: in music (the octave), alchemy and chemistry (the periodicity of the table of elements), and numerology (the figure 8, written sideways signifies infinity). And chess is linked to 8, because there are eight by eight squares on a chessboard.

Although the myriad of clues and the author's interweaving of fictional and historical events point to a mind-stunning solution, the end is disappointing. The figure 8, the chess game, and the mysterious formula behind them do not seem to be related to the forces of history after all.

Neville is probably wise to have avoided the temptation to ``prove'' that history can be explained as the working out of a formula or chess game.

But in that case, it's fair to complain that the reader's interest was solicited under false pretenses. This, of course, is a standard procedure of commercial fiction: to lure the reader in with sensational or exotic subject matter, but to leave settled conceptions safely in place at the end.

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