By Chloe HooperNon-fictionPenguin Random House Australia

The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire

On the scorching February day in 2009 that became known as Black Saturday, a man lit two fires in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, then sat on the roof of his house to watch the inferno. In the Valley, where the rates of crime were the highest in the state, more than thirty people were known to police as firebugs. But the detectives soon found themselves on the trail of a man they didn’t know.

The Arsonist takes readers on the hunt for this man, and inside the strange puzzle of his mind. It is also the story of fire in this country, and of a community that owed its existence to that very element. The command of fire has defined and sustained us as a species – understanding its abuse will define our future. 

A powerful real-life thriller written with Hooper’s trademark lyric detail and nuance, The Arsonist is a reminder that in an age of fire, all of us are gatekeepers.

Portrait of Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (2008) won the Victorian, New South Wales, West Australian and Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, as well as the John Button Prize for Political Writing, and a Ned Kelly Award for crime writing. She is also the author of two novels, A Child’s Book of True Crime and The Engagement.

Judges’ report

In this impressive book, Chloe Hooper expertly weaves together a series of stories. We learn of the events of the day of the Black Saturday bushfires from the perspective of those who suffered through it, emerging from the other side with great loss. We also learn about it from the emergency services workers who worked that day, from the police who would investigate what occurred, and the man who would be found guilty of setting part of the fires.

Hooper deftly handles the trauma at the centre of the bushfires and the histories of those who came together in some way through that day. Attention is paid to the ways that justice was pursued, and the difficulty with which that justice can be attained. Indeed, we are compelled to wonder, what can restitution look like after a tragedy such as this, for all involved?

The Arsonist is stunningly written, giving readers greater insight into the places that fire, community, policing, and family hold in our worlds.

Extract

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.

At the intersection of two nondescript roads, Detective Sergeant Adam Henry sits in his car taking in a puzzle. On one side of Glendonald Road, the timber plantation is untouched: pristine Pinus radiata, all sown at the same time, growing in immaculate green lines. On the other side, near where the road forms a T with a track named Jellef’s Outlet, stand rows of Eucalyptus globulus, the common blue gum cultivated the world over to make printer paper. All torched, as far as the eye can see. On Saturday 7 February 2009, around 1.30 pm, a fire started somewhere near here and now, late on Sunday afternoon, it is still burning several kilometres away.

Detective Henry has a new baby, his first, a week out of hospital. The night before, he had been called back from paternity leave for a 6 am meeting. Everyone in the Victoria Police Arson and Explosives Squad was called back. The past several days had been implausibly hot, with Saturday the endgame – mid­forties Celsius, culminating in a killer hundred­kmh northerly wind. That afternoon and throughout the night, firestorms ravaged areas to the state’s north, north­west, north­east, south­east and south­west. Henry was sent two hours east of Melbourne to supervise the investigation of this fire that started four kilo­ metres from the town of Churchill (pop. 4000). An investigation named, for obvious reasons, Operation Winston.

Through the smoke, and in the added haze of the sleep­ deprived, he drove with a colleague along the M1 to the Latrobe Valley. On the radio, the death toll was rising – fifty people, then a hundred. Whole towns, it was reported, had burned to the ground. The officers hit the first roadblock an hour out of the city. The dense forest of the Bunyip State Park was on fire, and the traffic police ushered them past onto a ghost freeway. For the next hour they might have been the only car on the usually manic road.

Outside, a string of towns nestled in the rolling green farms of Gippsland, and then it changed to coal country. Latticed electricity pylons multiplied closer to their source, their wires forming waves over the hills.

Turning a corner beyond Moe, Henry saw the cooling towers and cumulus vapours of the first power station, then, round the next bend, a valley ruled by the eight colossal chimneystacks of another station called Hazelwood. A vast open­cut coalmine abutted the highway. Layers of sloping roads descended deep into a brown core – the carbon remnants of a 30­million­year­ old swamp – where dredgers, shrunk by a trick of the eye to Matchbox versions, relentlessly gouged the earth.

He turned off to Churchill, a few kilometres south of the highway. The town, built in the late 1960s as a dormitory suburb for electricity workers, had wide streets and a slender, anodised statue rising thirty metres out of the ground. It was the sole public monument, commemorating the great man of Empire in the form of a stylised golden cigar.

The detective didn’t stop. He could see smoke above the blackened hills circling the town and wanted to get to the fire’s suspected area of origin before it was disturbed. If this was a case of arson, the police needed to prove the connection between the point of ignition and the victims, some of whom were likely to be kilometres away in places still too dangerous to access.

Passing the final roadblock, Henry parked and sat look­ing at the Nordic dreamscape on one side of the road, and the blackness on the other – the axis where the world had tilted.

Out of the car, it was eerily quiet. No birds cried, no insects thrummed their white noise. The air was cool, pungent with eucalyptus smoke. A not unpleasant smell. On the other side of the police tape, Henry saw the police arson chemist.

George Xydias had slightly hunched shoulders and a slant to his neck as if from his many years looking for clues in ashes and rubble. He had investigated accidental fires and deliberate fires; explosions in cars, boats, trucks, planes; and, after the terror­ist attacks of 2002, nightclubs in Bali. He had been to so many scorched crime scenes he could smell what type of vegetation or building material had just been incinerated, and even – to the irritation of those in his laboratory, exposed by his meticulous ways – the percentage of evaporated fuel sometimes left behind.

Wearing disposable white suits, Xydias and his assistant were talking with Ross Pridgeon, a bespectacled, shy, dryly humorous man with a mop of shaggy brown hair. Pridgeon, a local wildfire investigator from the Department of Sustainability and Environment, had been the first to examine the scene that morning. Amongst the precise rows of smouldering blue gums, he’d found signs of two deliberately lit fires, a hundred metres apart on either side of Jellef’s Outlet.

The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist