By Ronan Bennett

Simon & Schuster. 247 pp. $24

"Havoc, in Its Third Year" is a novel about a society coming apart. About a growing distance between rich and poor, an intense fear of evils perceived both within and without the land. About a desperate and inept government that slashes taxes for those at the top of the heap while withholding succor from those at the bottom, all the while reinforcing its injustices through fundamentalist interpretations of Christian scripture.

Don't get nervous! It's 17th-century Northern England that Ronan Bennett is talking about -- just a remote Yorkshire village, where a deadly struggle between Protestants and Catholics is playing out under the guise of Puritan "reform." Bennett is a novelist as well as a moralist, so he shapes his tale as a grisly murder mystery, while doing his learned best to imagine what it must have been like to live in that faraway place, during those very hard times.

The hero here is John Brigge (based on a real person), who is one of several governors of his town, as well as its coroner. Brigge, so far, has led a fairly standard life: He's married to Elizabeth, a good, hardworking woman, who is -- after several miscarriages -- about to give birth to their first child. He's had an unfortunate dalliance with Dorcas, a young ward of Elizabeth, but nothing has come of it, thank God. He owns a fairly substantial estate far out of town, growing oats, raising a few cows and a nice flock of sheep. His household includes several maids and other sundry servants as well as Adam, an orphan he's taken in and trained to be his clerk.

Brigge would seem to be ensconced securely in the middle class. His one disadvantage is that he's Catholic, but he attends Protestant services, and so far his faith has not counted against him. His big mistake in life was to have gotten involved in politics. His best friend, Nathaniel, ran for master of the town a few years back and persuaded him to become one of the governors. Of course, they can't all get along.

As Elizabeth's labor begins, Brigge is called away to the town to investigate the death of a baby, probably murdered by its mother. As a devout believer in signs and omens, Brigge is deeply depressed by this: What can this mean in terms of his own family? He finds the baby and an undeniably lactating new mother, who's already been arrested. She's defiant and high-strung. He immediately orders up some routine torture and then has her clapped in irons to await trial. But a key witness, a 16-year-old girl, has gone missing, supposedly to visit relatives. Brigge orders the girl summoned back, goes home, is there for the birth of his son, doesn't think about any of what's happened very much.

Having a child out of wedlock is brutally punishable in this town. Another woman has been flogged to death for not identifying her baby's father. The differences between what is preached and what is practiced are -- as always -- immense. Then, as now, all men and women "sin," while some among us (to maintain their own precarious advantage?), spend their lives judging others. Sex, as always, is the most convenient sin to judge, because it is ubiquitous.

Naturally the jailed woman isn't the murderer in this particular crime. Naturally, too, the missing 16-year-old is the mother of the dead baby. Someone else, someone in the government, killed his own child to save his own life. But who is it? As Brigge tries to get to the bottom of this crime, chaos begins to rule. If it weren't for all these new immigrants and homeless people who aren't willing to work for an honest wage! If it weren't for all the drunken sots and whores who spend their time taking their pleasure wherever and whenever they want it! If it weren't for those satanic Catholics who plot incessantly to overthrow the government!

Rage, hatred and fear are pitted here against compassion, tolerance and love. Brigge's life will change drastically; he doesn't see it coming, and he doesn't understand it when the change does come.

Ronan Bennett comes by his scorn for authority honestly. When he was still a (Catholic) schoolboy in Northern Ireland, he was routinely rounded up with hundreds of others by British troops and spent several years in an internment camp. He had firsthand experience of what those in even these best governments are capable of doing if they feel their power is threatened.

On the other hand, society tends to survive. Bennett was eventually released, got his PhD and became a novelist. Kindness and compassion are everywhere around us, if we care to look. The Earth is still full of living human beings. It's a miracle, perhaps even a religious one, when you stop to think about it.