CAPTIVITY CAPTIVE By Rodney Hall Farrar, Straus and Giroux 214 pp. $15.95

ON DECEMBER 26, 1898, a terrible event took place near Gatton, an isolated community of Queensland, in Australia. Three people were brutally murdered: Michael Murphy, 29 years old, and his two sisters, Norah, 27, and Ellen, 18. Their beaten and bloodied bodies were left in a paddock, where they were discovered by neighbors, but the killers were never found. The murders became a vivid component of local legend, and the subject of numerous official and amateur inquiries; all proved fruitless, and to this day the crime remains a mystery.

It is a mystery from which Rodney Hall, an Australian writer of high repute in his own country, has fashioned Captivity Captive, the second of his novels to be published in the United States; the first, Just Relations, appeared to an enthusiastic reception in 1982. The core of the novel is historical truth, but it is a slender core around which Hall has woven an elaborate web of fable and speculation. From the scant evidence of what happened near Gatton in 1898 he has constructed a tale that, through the experience of a single if highly unusual family, becomes a metaphor for the settlement of Australia and its subsequent loss of national innocence; it is an imaginative feat of no small dimensions, yet as a work of fiction Captivity Captive is oddly unsatisfying.

The explanation for this is familiar. Hall is a writer of immense gifts who has invested his story with so much thematic weight, and embroidered it in prose of such self-consciously poetic beauty, that the story itself eventually is smothered by the art. Captivity Captive is admirable, and impressive, and intelligent, yet for all its appeals to the reader's emotions it never manages actually to reach them; one is simply too conscious of Hall's manipulations to be taken in by them.

His narrator is Patrick Murphy, one of the 10 children of Daniel and Mary Murphy. He is 80 years old, sitting at the bedside of Barney Barnett, who at the hour of his death is claiming to be the killer of Patrick's three siblings nearly six decades ago. But Patrick knows that Barney is lying, that there is more to the tale than Barney's belated longing "to die famous." So Patrick begins to tell the tale himself, slowly working his way, by meditation and indirection, to the terrible scene in the paddock.

The setting has been moved by Hall from Queensland to New South Wales. The Murphy clan, of Irish and English blood, has lived for two generations on a 20-acre patch that Patrick's grandfather had christened Paradise and within which Patrick's father has created a world of its own, isolated from the larger human society, a world that "contained the full variety of human richness." Pa is a giant standing nearly seven feet, and Mum is not much smaller, and they control their children through fear and rigid discipline even into adulthood, yet the children capitulate:

"Only now do I begin to understand my father's anger. He had arranged a world for us where we could be free of the usual creeping lassitude, free of rudderless bewilderment on a sea of possibilities, free from the corruption of choice -- a world in which each of us had a secure place. Australia was going soft, he saw that, and he kept us hard. We raised our own beef, we made cheese and stored it, bred chickens, and grew the fruit and vegetables we ate." WITHIN THIS strange family, each of the children assumes a role; taken all together, these roles reflect the variety and complexity of the outer world, and thus make the isolated Murphy family a metaphor for Australia itself, sequestered as it was at the turn of the century on its distant island. This is the Australia of the early years after convict settlement, before the two world wars drew it inexorably into the world's affairs and before the luxury and blandness of modern life corrupted its distinctive character. What Hall is saying about this vanished Australia is that although it was in many ways narrow, rigid and brutal, it was not devoid of "glints of enlightenment" and it had a certain fierce character:

"The brutalities of our life at Paradise, the blind rules and desperate suppression were all in their own way moral. Yes, and most moral where most wrong. You will think me perverse for saying so, but the grimmest peaks of suffering, those feelings of being most hopelessly trapped, are the times I hold precious as I look back on them. Whatever else, they were not tainted with the contemptible blandness, the utterly gray indifference and suffocating comfort now fallen like a blanket on the whole country."

But Paradise is doomed, for like the world itself at the turn of the century it is caught in an "irresistible headlong rush away from all we had known." For Paradise the point of no return is the triple murder, for the world it is the terrible war that broke out in 1914. Of both events Patrick remarks: "When you look back on it, you say to yourself: How did it happen? such madness? such murder? the lies so senseless, so impossible to unravel, the blame so hard to assign to pardonable causes?" But madness, of course, defies explanation.

This is powerful material, and Hall works hard to extract the full measure of power from it. At times he succeeds; the murders, when at last they take place, are described with passion and eloquence, and the furies of Pa Murphy are rendered with considerable feeling. Yet even in these passages, the reader remains at a distance from the novel, respectful of the performance being staged but always mindful that it is indeed a performance. Captivity Captive is in its way a beautiful book, but its beauty is of the sort that is easy to admire and difficult to care for. ::