The Arsonist review: Chloe Hooper goes to the heart of a crime and a criminal
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The Arsonist review: Chloe Hooper goes to the heart of a crime and a criminal

SOCIETY

The Arsonist
By Chloe Hooper
Hamish Hamilton, $34.99

Author Chloe Hooper.

Author Chloe Hooper.

What drives people to light bushfires? Spite? Revenge? Psychosis? A fierce need by the luckless and downtrodden to control events for once? Maybe an urge to initiate something elemental and – in this country – even mythical?

We might never know the mind of a firebug. But as Australia faces increasingly warm summers in a changing climate, Chloe Hooper attempted to find out. Her model is the Latrobe Valley on Black Saturday, February 7, 2009, which killed 11 people on a day when 173 died in the most deadly fires in colonised Australia's history.

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The Arsonist. By Chloe Hooper.

The Arsonist. By Chloe Hooper.

"Arson is increasingly fertile ground for the venting of discontent," she writes in The Arsonist, by turns a fascinating real-life thriller, police procedural, intense sociological study and the long-overdue story of fire in Australia.

As she points out, bushfire arson, though not unique to Australia, is a national speciality. Thirty-seven per cent of bushfires are deemed suspicious and 13 per cent maliciously lit. Thirty-five per cent are considered accidental, 5 per cent due to natural causes, and 5 per cent caused by re-ignition or spot fires. The rest are shelved under "natural causes".

"A century ago, Henry Lawson wrote that arson expresses a malice 'terrifying to those who have seen what it is capable of. You never know when you are safe.' " The Arsonist shows nothing has changed. The discontented are legion. And only 1 per cent of bushfire arsonists are ever caught.

Hooper, whose widely acclaimed The Tall Man examined in haunting detail the death in Queensland police custody of an Aboriginal man 40 minutes after he swore at an officer, here finds sympathetic common ground with the cops in the Victoria Police Arson and Explosives Squad, whose impressively rigorous and forensic detective work fills the book's first 100 pages.

"The Arson Squad was aware that there were more deliberately lit fires near the urban-rural fringe – places where high youth unemployment, child abuse and neglect, and intergenerational welfare dependency met the margins of the bush, the eucalypts. And that pretty much described most of the towns in the Latrobe Valley."

Crime rates here were the highest in Victoria and more than 30 people were known as firebugs. But on hot and windy summer days you couldn't expect the police to monitor everyone with fury inside them. "Revenge as elemental to the flames as oxygen."

"If arson is an expression of a particular psychology, there will always be arsonists," Hooper writes, mentioning the case of Rosemary Harris, caught lighting fires with her son in the same area two years before. She was 29 and her son was 15. Her other six children were waiting in the car. At her sentencing, she was pregnant with her eighth child.

What is especially powerful and nuanced about The Arsonist is Hooper's detailed investigation into "A Mind on Fire" (the book's sub-title), the psyche of the intellectually impaired man, Brendan Sokaluk, 42, who was eventually convicted in 2012 of 10 counts of arson causing death on Black Saturday and jailed for 17 years.

While The Arsonist arouses some compassion for Sokaluk – a bullied outsider who was only diagnosed with autism after his arrest, and who never confessed (but admitted to maybe unthinkingly dropping a cigarette butt) – Hooper's even-handed narrative pays full attention to the victims and the huge human distress the fires caused.

What is disturbing is her comparative point that another 162 people died in bushfires that day because of failures in an ageing privatised electricity grid with inadequate safety standards and regulatory checks. As she has said elsewhere, "We don't have a lynch mob going after the directors of the power companies".

In Hooper's sure hands the grimmest details become exquisite imagery. Though strange to report, there can even be beauty in arson's aftermath: "Picture a fairytale's engraving. Straight black trees stretching in perfect symmetry to their vanishing point, the ground covered in thick white snow. Woods are dangerous places in such stories, things are not as they seem. Here, too, in this timber plantation, menace lingers. The blackened trees smoulder. Smoke creeps around their charcoal trunks and charred leaves. The snow, stained pale grey, is ash. Place your foot unwisely and it might slip through and burn. These woods are cordoned off with crime scene tape and guarded by uniformed police officers. . . Somewhere very near here the fire had begun."

Robert Drewe's latest book, The True Colour of the Sea, is published by Hamish Hamilton at $29.99.