Review: The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper shares her insights into the sort of person who might perpetrate the crime of arson.
Review: The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper's The Arsonist.

The Arsonist is the true story of what came to be known as ‘Black Saturday’, namely 7 February 2009. This was the day Australia suffered a horrendous series of bushfires in which many people died and many more were injured. The total area destroyed by the fires was about 500,000 square kilometres, including over 2,000 homes. That a human being was deliberately responsible for some of this disaster is hard to comprehend. 

Here, Chloe Hooper covers everything from the initial suspicion that a person deliberately started the bushfire to when the suspected arsonist is apprehended, and the resulting consequences. Her reporting is factual and unbiased. She casts light on the practical, technical and legal complexities involved in dealing with the crime of arson. She also shares her insights into the sort of person who might perpetrate such a crime.

The Arsonist has three main sections. The first of these is headed ‘The Detectives’. It includes an illuminating explanation on how the experts determine the source of a fire and draws reasonable conclusions as to how this particular fire might have started. It also describes the meticulous work of the detectives, which led them to the conclusion that probably two fires were deliberately started by an arsonist. This resulted in them making numerous enquiries and doing extensive legwork to identify likely suspects. Commenting on the difficult nature of police work, Hooper mentions a policeman who ‘hadn’t known, when he joined the police service – no one does – the scale of the damage he’d go on to see . . . he was learning a daily lesson about people’s ability to inflict pain’.

The second section of the book is headed ‘The Lawyers’. In this section, Hooper deals with the problems of giving the suspected arsonist a fair go, an approach made more difficult by the apparent mental limitations of the suspect. It also covers the problems that arise from the justifiable anger of the disaster victims. Hooper mentions some of the findings of the Bushfires Royal Commission into the Black Friday disasters, findings which clearly implicate others than the suspected arsonist in much that went wrong. However, the Commission’s findings did little to blunt the understandable venom directed at the suspected arsonist.

Section three is called ‘The Courtroom’ and describes the trial that took place some three years after the events of Black Saturday. The arsonist had a top-class defence team and by any standards had a fair trial lasting some three weeks, although it can be questioned whether it is fair to the accused for it to take three years for a trial to come to court. The name of the suspected arsonist and the jury’s verdict are a matter of public record but are not mentioned in this review for the benefit of those readers who would prefer to read what happened without knowing the outcome in advance.

In a coda, Hooper includes revealing comments from some of the victims and from people who knew the suspected arsonist. In relation to the latter, it is clear that the suspect was a person ‘who had been mistreated for much of his life, both by those who’d actively wished him harm and those who simply hadn’t understood his distinct psychology. Hounding [him] to the point of meltdown became a sport’. The question remains unanswered: who is to blame for the actions of those who, perhaps through no fault of their own, become the outcasts of society? Hooper, in The Arsonist, lays that question squarely at your feet.

4 stars ★★★★
The  Arsonist A Mind on Fire
By Chloe Hooper

BIOGRAPHY & MEMOIR / SOCIETY & CULTURE
Trade Paperback
9780670078189
15 October 2018
Hamish Hamilton
272 pages
RRP $34.99

Erich Mayer

Tuesday 15 January, 2019

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info