A crop of Andropov biographies - marred by speculation but useful, Yuri Andropov: A Secret Passage into the Kremlin, by Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova. New York: Macmillan. 320 pp. $15.95. Andropov: New Challenge to the West, by Arnold Beichman and Mikhail S. Bernstam. New York: Stein & Day. 264 pp. $16.95. Andropov, by Ilya Zemtsov. Jerusalem: Israel Research Institute of Contemporary Society (IRICS, P.O. Box 687, 91006, Jerusalem.) 252 pp. (paperback). The Andropov File, by Martin Ebon. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. 284 pp. $16.95 . Andropov, by Zhores A. Medvyedev. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 227 pp. $14.95.
It is unfortunate the authors of the first five instant biographies on Yuri Andropov did not interview one another and then produce a single considered volume on the new Kremlin chief.
Each of the early entries in the Andropov sweepstakes has its particular strengths. Yet all the volumes share a tendency to pad out the understandably few facts at hand with rumor; speculation; supposition; and, in the worst cases, fantasy peppered with ideological invective.
This is particularly true of the co-work of Mr. Solovyov and Ms. Klepikova. The authors go so far as to reproduce purported private conversations between Andropov and the late Leonid Brezhnev. They detail, vote by vote, secret Politburo decisions, adding only in a brief postscript that such items were drawn from ''rumors - so persistent they could be taken as fact.'' Unless the rumors came ultimately from the principals - unlikely - the supposition would seem, at best, disingenuous. Similarly suspect details, cavalierly worded, pepper the book's narrative of an alleged game of coup and countercoup, including a purported move by the Brezhnev camp to have Andropov arrested before the leadership transition actually occurred late last year.
The other two-author volume, by Beichman and Bernstam, relies occasionally on similar ''sources'': For example, in reporting recent ''spontaneous food riots, '' I know of no Moscow diplomat or foreign journalist, though all are aware of food-riot rumors in the past few years, who has anywhere near sufficient confidence in - much less evidence to back - such reports as to reproduce them without the most careful hedging.
Both co-written volumes also tend to assume that Mr. Andropov had a precise vision of his future career, and the clout to realize it, from a far earlier date in that career and with far more certainty on the part of the authors than seems reasonable to most Moscow-based analysts.
By far the least speculative of the current batch of Andropov studies is that of Zhores Medvyedev, the London-exiled twin brother of Moscow's dissident historian Roy Medvyedev. This volume, unlike the others, seems more a genuine political biography than a political tract. Yet it remains a very readable volume. It also seems - more on domestic than foreign policy - to make the best stab at sensing how Kremlin policies are likely to evolve under the new leader.
The reader seeking a single Andropov book would do well to choose the Medvyedev one.
Still, readers with special interest - and the time and energy to winnow useful facts and judgment from strident speculation - will find something of value in each of the other books:
* The Solovyov-Klepikova volume includes several bits of information on Andropov's past - and on that of other Politburo members like Leningrader Grigori Romanov and Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze - from the authors' experience before emigration from the USSR or their interviews with genuinely informed sources.
* The Beichman-Bernstam book includes painstakingly researched material from some of Andropov's writings not so far detailed in the West and from the memoirs of the present Soviet foreign-trade minister, Nikolai Patolichev, who worked with Andropov when the Kremlin chief was far lower on the Soviet totem pole. The authors have also done a better job than their competition in reconstructing Andropov's climb to the top, particularly his brief slippage in the wake of Stalin's passing, although this narrative is unfortunately hampered at times by a tendency to fill inevitable gaps of fact with supposition.
* The Zemtsov volume, while also an example of the occasional temptation to bridge various factual gaps with unconvincing speculation, is distinguished by a generally serious yet readable tone, by occasional dashes of surprisingly genuine long-distance ''local color,'' and by the author's thorough familiarity with Russian and Western media material from the transition period. This monograph was issued as a supplement to the quarterly magazine, Crossroads (issue No. 10, Spring, 1983). It is available by writing the magazine, which Zemtsov edits.
* Mr. Ebon's book, also occasionally helpful for its wide array of Western source material, is most valuable for its appendix, reproducing translated major Andropov speeches and writings from the past two decades.