In their celebration of the current ultra-high-tech world of criminal investigation, forensics television shows like CSI (and its innumerable spin-offs) have made it easy to forget just how much detective techniques have changed in the last few years, not to mention the last few centuries. Ronan Bennett's Havoc in Its Third Year, a heavily fictionalized account of the life of John Brigge, a mid-seventeenth-century coroner in Yorkshire, England is a quick reminder of the days when science and criminal investigation were not necessarily linked. Instead of DNA testing and fingerprinting techniques, Brigge's investigations are based on faith, intuition, and (often as a last resort) hard evidence. One case has Brigge forcing a suspected murderer to touch the body of the victim. Should he be guilty, Brigge believes, the corpse will begin to ooze blood, condemning the man for his crime. Something tells me you won't be seeing that on the next episode of Law and Order.
Although it may be hard to imagine Brigge's methods in relation to criminal investigation today, it doesn't require much more than the first couple of pages of Bennett's author's note to realize that Havoc is more than just a history lesson. The mid-seventeenth century, Bennett says, may not be so different than the early-twenty-first. Then, as today, fear dominated and directed the course of political rule. Banging down the gates of Yorkshire were the "fanatical, brainwashed followers of the pope . . . determined to extinguish (the Protestant's) liberties, religion, heritage and institution . . ." says Bennett introducing his novel. Replace "the pope" with "radical Islam" and you've got something that might not seem out of place in the president's next State-of-the-Union address. And even had Bennett not spelled out his intentions in this introduction, it's not hard to pick up on certain character's use of words like "evildoer" and make the correlation to their modern context.
With its connections to the modern day, and given the whirlwind of terror whipped up in the course of Havoc in Its Third Year, one would have to be a little concerned about what happens when fanatical opposition emboldens fanatical governments and wonder where we ourselves might be heading. Thankfully, Havoc is full of characters like John Brigge, to curb such pessimism. Brigge, a man of high regard as Yorkshire's coroner, comes to represent the steadfastness of men who are able to maintain sanity in insane times. As unfounded threats of a papist insurgency flood the town, Brigge maintains his composure, not allowing himself to get swept up in the Catholic witch-hunting of the other governors led by his friend Nathaniel Challoner. The iron-fisted Challoner, under whose reign criminal punishment in Yorkshire has become brutal, uses the specter of invading Catholic hordes to further his own political goals. "They want a strong man to lead them, even if he is cruel," he tells Brigge at one point. And if it's a strong, cruel leader they want, it's a strong cruel leader they'll get in Challoner. Unfortunately strong, cruel leaders aren't always worried about the guilt or innocence of those subject to their strength and cruelty.
Enter Katherine Shay, a recusant Irish peasant woman accused of murdering her newborn. Her crime--like seemingly all other crimes, from adultery to thieving--is punishable in Yorkshire by torture and hanging, and the governors are all-too-swift in their readiness to levy her punishment. But, while all fingers may point to Shay's guilt, Brigge as the town's coroner has a modicum of responsibility to find some kind of evidence or witness to confirm that she has committed a crime, although he too assumes her guilt even before arriving at the crime scene.