Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: True Crime (page 1 of 2)

Murder In Mississippi – John Safran

I’ve had a copy of Murder In Mississippi on my shelves since I first heard John Safran talking about the process of writing it on the now-defunct Sunday Night Safran radio program (and it’s actually the second book I’ve reviewed on that basis, the first was Religion For Atheists). It was published in 2013, and later in the U.S. under the title God’ll Cut You Down (the Johnny Cash lyric, quoted in the book’s epigraph). I remember Safran saying on his show that the title changed because Murder In Mississippi sounds very exotic in Australia, but to a U.S. audience it sounds like “Murder In New South Wales” (I checked with an American friend, and she confirmed).

Murder In Mississippi - John Safran - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Murder In Mississippi here.
(Or buy God’ll Cut You Down. Either way, if you use one of the affiliate links on this page, I’ll earn a little commission.)

The book’s subtitle is: “The true story of how I met a white supremacist, befriended his black killer and wrote this book”. So, even though it’s been gathering dust on my shelves for years, perhaps it’s a good thing I waited to read and review Murder In Mississippi – it’s only become more zeitgeist-y over time.

The author, John Safran, is a documentary filmmaker and humourist, kind of like an Australian Louis Theroux. He specialises in fish-out-of-water storytelling, and a “you can’t ask that!” style of interview. As he says himself, on page 2 of Murder In Mississippi: “I often ask dangerous people indelicate questions and try not to get thumped. And I often ask them about race. I’m a bit of a Race Trekkie – like a sci-fi Trekkie, but with race, not space.”

Murder In Mississippi starts when Safran – as a “bit” for a documentary – tried to join the Ku Klux Klan. Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t overlook his Jewishness, and declined his application. As part of that endeavour, he spent a day in Mississippi with notorious white supremacist Richard Barrett. Barrett didn’t take kindly to being the butt of one of Safran’s jokes, and made sufficient legal threats to stop the footage ever going to air. A year and a half later, Safran learned that Barrett had been killed (allegedly) by a young black man.





Safran was spooked, and intrigued. Drawing his inspiration from classic true crime books (In Cold Blood, Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil, and “a couple of less famous ones”), he decided he had to investigate and write the story. Doing so meant picking up sticks and plonking himself down in the American South with nothing more than a hunch and a penchant for asking nosy questions (seriously, Safran didn’t even have an advance or any publishing support when he decided to do this). That’s where the similarities between Safran and his predecessors end, however; he’s certainly a lot more frank with the reader about his trickery and creative license than Capote ever was. “All those true crime books were written before the internet,” Safran says on page 29. “These days, you can’t get away with anything.”

Safran embarks on his investigation with all the preconceptions you’d expect upon hearing that a white supremacist might have been murdered by a black man. He charged in with a bit of a white saviour mentality, to be honest. He thought he’d EXPOSE INJUSTICE and FIX RACISM… and, of course, nothing of the sort came to pass.

A brief overview of the crime at the center of Murder In Mississippi: on 22 April 2010, a neighbour called emergency services and reported seeing smoke rising from Barrett’s home. Firefighters found his corpse near the back door of the house, and an autopsy revealed thirty-five stab wounds, traumatic injuries to the head, and rib fractures. The investigators pieced together a story and timeline that involved Vincent McGee – who was out on parole, after serving most of a sentence for assault and grand larceny – doing some yard work for Barrett in the afternoon, returning to the house that evening and stabbing Barrett, then returning again a third time to set fire to the property in an effort to conceal his crime. They proposed a number of motives for McGee’s alleged crime, mainly robbing Barrett (his wallet and gun were missing), and/or rejecting a sexual advance made by Barrett. Safran was the only one who started asking questions about race.





When Safran arrived in Mississippi, McGee was being held in remand pending trial. Safran was hoping to get the preliminary interviews out of the way and then get his court reporter on, figuring that the Truth Would Come Out as the prosecutor and defense did battle… only McGee entered a guilty plea, and was sentenced to 65 years in prison. That left Safran scratching his arse, wondering where the heck to go from there. It completely destroyed his preconceived narrative (because miscarriage-of-justice stories should really end with the wrongfully-imprisoned man going free, at least in a pre-Serial world).

Murder In Mississippi therefore became a book about the process of researching and writing a true crime book, far more than a book about the crime itself. Searching my feelings about half-way through, as I scanned the obligatory glossy photo inserts, I realised I cared about whether Safran actually got onto McGee’s prison visitor list to interview the man in person, far more than I cared whether McGee actually committed a crime and/or what actually happened at Barrett’s house that night. Safran’s investigation, his frustrations and his doubts are the focus of the story.

“In Mississippi, the more layers of onion I peel, the more I’m standing in a mess of onion.”

Murder In Mississippi (Page 280)

There was actually something quite comforting about reading a fellow Australian’s efforts to wade into American race relations. Neither Safran nor I can pretend to truly understand the divide between white and black in the American South; all we can do is ask nosy questions and make inferences from what we understand of racism in our own backyards. Still, he has the gall to ask far nosier questions than I ever would, which meant I learned a lot.

Safran won the 2014 Ned Kelly Award (True Crime) for his efforts, and enjoyed the process so much that he went on to write Depends What You Mean By Extremist (my review of that one to follow, soon, probably). All told, this was an interesting, compelling, and at-times hilarious read, one I highly recommend to true crime fans and Race Trekkies alike.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murder In Mississippi:

  • “Rambling and unimportant. However, I applaud the effort and wish Mr. Safran success.” – cWallin

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark – Michelle McNamara

When my dear friend Cathal handed me a copy of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, I literally squealed with delight. I’d been desperate to read it ever since I did my initial binge-listen to every episode of the My Favorite Murder podcast (reminder: I reviewed the hosts’ joint memoir Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, also a gift from Cathal, here). But I exercised some restraint, and held onto it until I felt I really… “needed” it. That’s the definition of adulthood, isn’t it? Delayed gratification? Okay, maybe it’s a bit whacky that my gratification comes from a gritty true crime novel, but whatever. I am what I am, and what I am is a true crime junkie. I’ve made my peace with it.

The back-cover summary for I’ll Be Gone In The Dark promises “a masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer – the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorised California for over a decade – from Michelle McNamara, a gifted journalist who died tragically while still writing and researching her debut book”. It also features glowing endorsements from Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, once again lending credence to the idea that the truth can be stranger (and better) than fiction.

The story of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark has received almost as much attention as the crimes it covers. It all began with McNamara’s blog (True Crime Diary, still online here), and an article she wrote for the LA Times in 2013. At that time, the series of rapes and murders attributed to the Golden State Killer were still a decades-old cold case, with files stretching across multiple jurisdictions and decades. McNamara sadly died, aged just 46, with the manuscript of this book only two-thirds done.

It was completed after her death by the lead researcher and a close colleague (Paule Haynes, and Billy Jensen), and her husband (Patton Oswalt) wrote a touching afterword in her honour. These contributors added footnotes to clarify or expand upon what McNamara had written before her death, rather than editorialising in an attempt to produce a “polished” story. They don’t ignore or gloss over McNamara’s passing, and they don’t falsely emulate her style or voice – it’s always clear to the reader what was McNamara’s work, and what was their logical continuation. On occasion, they cobbled together crucial sections from her notes and blog posts, making it clear to the reader that they had done so. I really liked this approach; it seemed more respectful, to both McNamara and the reader, than any alternative. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark was ultimately published posthumously, in 2018, two years after McNamara’s death.





Even though the book is definitively true crime, it has a more literary bent than most offerings you’d find at airport bookshops. It crosses over into memoir at times, with McNamara offering up her own family history to explain how she came to have an interest in true crime and this particular case. It’s not schlocky, sensationalist true crime, but it’s still compulsively readable. It would seem that the one concession the publishers made to the tropes of the genre were the glossy photograph inserts: smiling photographs of the victims and their families, yearbook photos, neighbourhoods where crimes took place, evidence bags, and police sketches.

McNamara doesn’t shy away from her own role in bringing the case to worldwide public attention; she’s not braggy, but she doesn’t downplay it either. She wasn’t “just lucky”. She, and a group of like-minded armchair detectives, kept the case alive through hard work, persistence, and determination. In fact, it was McNamara who coined the “Golden State Killer” moniker. Prior to that, given that the culprit had undertaken three separate crime sprees with little to connect them, the press had given him three different nicknames (including the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker). The public, understandably, got the impression that these were different perpetrators, until McNamara came along and started connecting dots on their behalf.

The crimes (over one hundred burglaries, at least fifty sexual assaults, and at least thirteen murders) were all committed long before the DNA testing and lab analysis we have today. “By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be unrelated were the work of one man,” McNamara says on page 4, “more than a decade had passed since his last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority”. More than eight thousand suspects were investigated as part of the Golden State Killer case, but when McNamara started her blog, the police still had nothing.





It’s near impossible to wrap your head around the magnitude, severity, and sheer volume of crimes committed by the Golden State Killer, and McNamara doesn’t even attempt to lay out the facts of the case(s) in any linear fashion. I can’t even imagine how difficult it would have been to try to capture the scope and relate the details of all of these crimes, because there were just so many – and, being an unsolved case with no leads at the time of writing, it’s not like there were trial documents or police interviews to verify information against. McNamara and her publishers helpfully included, in the front of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark a timeline, a map, and – most importantly, in my view, a list of victims and investigators. That’s something I wish we saw more in true crime: front-and-center focus on victims, and the people who work to bring them justice.

That said, the title is drawn from a threat the killer made to one of his early victims:

“… a man in a leather hood entered the window of a house in Citrus. Heights and sneaked up on a sixteen-year-old girl watching television alone in the den. He pointed a knife at her and issued a chilling warning: ‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark,’.”

Page 60-61

Still, because the killer hadn’t been identified at the time of writing, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by default avoids exploiting the victims or overtly revering the serial rapist and murderer (the way that true crime books about, say, Ted Bundy, tend to).





I’ll Be Gone In The Dark topped the New York Times Best Seller List for non-fiction, and remained there for fifteen weeks. HBO subsequently purchased the film rights, and a six-part documentary series was released earlier this year. But, of course, the big clincher is this: since the time of publication, the Golden State Killer has been caught. His identification and arrest was controversial, as it occurred through the use of DNA evidence matched against samples provided to a genealogy website. What’s even more stunning is that McNamara foresaw this: in I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, her notes point to her intention to find a way of running the killer’s DNA through 23AndMe or Ancestry.com.

Obviously, there are all kinds of scary ethical questions raised by this type of investigation, but I won’t explore them here. All I’ll say is, just this once, I’m glad it worked. The culprit has been sentenced to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, after pleading guilty to multiple counts of murder and kidnapping (he cannot be charged on counts of rapes he committed in the 1970s, as the statute of limitations has passed – boo to that!).

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, though, concludes with a letter from McNamara to the then-unidentified killer. In it, she personally implores him to step into the light. It gave me literal goosebumps – and I still can’t help but wonder what went through his mind when he read it (as he undoubtedly has).

I’ve heard some readers complain that reading I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is less captivating now that the “case is solved”. I would argue that, if that’s the case, you’re reading it for different reasons than I am. I read this book to learn about a woman’s pursuit of justice, to understand the horrors wrought upon the women who were victimised by one terrible man, to get some insight into how fifty years can go by without an answer being found. I’m not here to gawp at a cold case (and if you are, no worries, there are plenty of other true crime books out there for you). But if you’re anything like me, if any of those motives sound more appealing to you than simple scares and shock factor, then I’ll Be Gone In The Dark is the book for you, as it was for me.

I don’t often include plugs at the end of my book reviews, but given the nature and content of this one, I feel it’s warranted. U.S. Keeper Upperers, I know there’s a lot of you – consider throwing some support towards End The Backlog, who aim to eliminate the atrocious backlog of untested rape kits across your country and prevent such a backlog from ever building up again. For Keeper Upperers elsewhere, look into your local or state-based sexual assault support services, I’m sure they could use your backing, too!

My favourite Amazon reviews of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark:

  • “This book legit gave me nightmares. 10/10 would recommend.” – Justin Marshal Kirkpatrick
  • “I don’t understand the reviews for this book. I found it to be dull and boring. My favorite true crime books read like a novel. This book is stale and full of percentages.” – siansays

The Library Book – Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean made international headlines, and won herself a legion of new fans, earlier this year when she posted a series of unabashedly drunken tweets lamenting the state of the world. She’s well deserving of the recognition, of course, but there are plenty of us who were well enamored with her long before she had one too many wines at her neighbour’s house. I’ve been crazy about her ever since I picked up The Library Book earlier this year, her account of the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library Fire.

Never heard of it? Neither had Orlean, until she moved to Los Angeles and took a tour of the Central Library building. Her tour guide pulled a book from a shelf and smelled it (slightly odd, but not beyond the pale for book lovers). Then he said he could “still smell the smoke”, and that’s what piqued Orlean’s interest. She thought, at first, that he meant the remnants of a time when patrons were allowed to smoke cigarettes in libraries. But, no: he was talking about the suspected act of arson that set light to the library on the morning of 29 April 1986, the fire that burned for several hours, the same one that destroyed over 400,000 books and damaged several hundred thousand more. No one was killed, but fifty firefighters were injured.

‘Hang on,’ Orlean thought (as I’m sure you are right now), ‘if the fire was that big, why hasn’t anyone heard about it?’. Check the date: it was drowned out of the news almost immediately by the Chernobyl disaster. And thus, the biggest library fire in the history of the United States was all but forgotten – and the suspected crime remains unsolved.





That’s not to say there were no suspects. Orlean begins The Library Book with a profile of Harry Peak, the man who led police on a wild goose chase throughout their investigation. He is described as being “very blonde” by his lawyer, and “the biggest bullshitter in the world” by his sister – make of that what you will. Orlean reads reports, transcripts, interviews friends and relatives, to find out everything she can about Harry Peak… but even then (spoiler alert), she can’t definitively answer – nor can anyone else – the question of why, or even whether, he would set fire to the Los Angeles Central Library.

The Library Book is, at its bones, a true crime story, interrogating who could have possibly started such a fire, and why. That said, it’s a long way from the feigned objectivity or omniscience of a book like The Arsonist. Orlean’s writing is memoir-esque, interweaving her own recollections of childhood library visits, and also incorporating extensive local history, including the socioeconomic and political complexities of the city of angels.

Now, I’m going to put a very important warning right here: do not read The Library Book if your friends and family will not take kindly to being bombarded with “fun facts” for at least a month. I made a grave error in choosing this book to accompany me when I was a passenger on a road trip. By the time we reached our destination, my fellow travellers were ready to set me on fire. Every few minutes, I’d say “Oh, wow! Did you know…” They were interested, at first, but after a while it wore thin, and soon my gasps of fascination were met with exhausted groans. So, there you go. You’ve been warned.





Orlean leaves no stone unturned, which is what makes The Library Book such a trove of delight and wonder for book-lovers and library patrons. She turns up everything from the history of libraries, the growth of Hollywood, the bust of the Depression, the psychology of arsonists, the physics of book burning (she even burned a copy of Fahrenheit 451 herself, for research!), the lives of the librarians who worked in the building (right down to their preferred brands of cigarettes)… she spent six and a half years researching this book, and it shows. And yet, she doesn’t simply dump it all in your lap; she delivers it, seamlessly, in a page-turning book that offers a kaleidoscopic view of a library and the terrible crime that occurred there (probably).

I’m sure you’ve deduced as much by now, but I’ll say it for the record: The Library Book is a highly Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a must for any library-goer or book-worm. And, in a year when libraries have been beaten and bruised by pandemic restrictions coupled with the increased demand of the disadvantaged communities they serve, there is surely no better time to read a love letter the public library system.

Do you use your local library? Either way, you might want to check this out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Library Book:

  • “lots of facts about libraries” – kcp
  • “Dreadful book – throw out” – Polly
  • “This book is tedious, overwritten and disjointed. Just like the IMPOSSIBLE BURGER is impossible to eat, this book is impossible to read.” – ruth evans

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark

I first discovered the My Favorite Murder podcast back in 2017. I went all the way back to the beginning and binge-listened to every single episode (yes, I’m a podcast junkie, but this one was particularly addictive), and I haven’t missed one since. We fans call ourselves “Murderinos”, and there are tens of thousands of us around the world. The hosts are Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, and they have over 20 million monthly listeners. “You come for the murder, you stay for the camaraderie” they say, and they’re right. Their friendship is the reason their podcast, and now their book, works. Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is their dual memoir published last year (and this copy was very kindly gifted to me by my very dear friend and fellow Murderino, Cathal).

Stay Sexy & Don't Get Murdered - Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered here.
(Using an affiliate link like this one will help ME to stay sexy and not get murdered, so thank you!)

Sidebar: The book is gorgeous, of course, but I must say, I was really bemused by the fact that in the blurb the word “bullshit” is censored (stylised as “bullsh*t”), but they let the word “unfuckwithable” fly in full. Weird, eh?

Anyway, I’ve never read a dual memoir before. In fact, this is the first (officially) co-authored book I’ve reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a strange mix of self-help and memoir, like a “Look what we learned by how badly we fucked up!” guide to life. Kilgariff and Hardstark’s transparency about hard times and shitty decision-making is gloriously disarming. They cover everything from self-care, to relationships, to substance abuse, to staying sexy, to not getting murdered.

Ah, murder: you’d think that, given the nature of their brand and the subject of their podcast, that Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered would be full of true crime chat. Not so! True crime is mentioned in passing, of course (given that it’s their passion, and now their life’s work), but it’s not a focus. When they do mention it, mostly towards the end of the book, they steer away from recounting grisly details or glorifying sensational cases. Instead, they use the opportunity to pay respects to victims and families, and call out the toxic habit of victim-blaming.

“… at the end of the day, the only reason it matters is the victim. It’s the victim and their friends and family who will forever be affected by the trueness of the crime long after the killer is caught…”

Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered, Page 295

The book’s title, and all its chapter headers, are taken from catch-phrases and in-jokes used in the podcast. Basically, Kilgariff and Hardstark take their winning formula and reproduce it in print, only they’re now talking about their lives instead of murders. Their personalities and tone translate well, and there’s no pretentious attempts at literariness. These podcasters are well aware—and they make their readers well aware of their well-awareness—that they aren’t Professional Authors(TM). There’s no bullshit. They’re not writing like they hope they’ll win the Pulitzer. They’re just two insanely popular women with a huge fan base, responding to popular demand for a book about their experiences. They write as they speak, which they know (based on the weight of evidence) will resonate.





Most Murderinos will already be at least somewhat familiar with many of the stories recounted in Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, but Kilgariff and Hardstark offer more nuanced and detailed insights than they might in an off-the-cuff podcast recording. Their radical vulnerability, their unabashed hanging out of dirty laundry, is very impressive. They are candid and personable, just as you’d hope them to be, and they encourage their readers (as they do their listeners) to eschew the myth of “perfection” and the reverence of politeness.

OK, fine: they out-and-out tell readers to “fuck politeness”, and I must say, I agree.

It’s quite funny—I laughed out loud a few times. I’m not sure I’d call Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered a laugh riot exactly, there are a lot of stories of trauma and devastation, but you’re sure to crack a few smiles at least (and if you don’t, you’re dead inside, seek help).

I’m not sure how much this book would mean to readers who don’t already listen to the podcast, though. As I’ve said, it’s generously seasoned with in-jokes, the kind that have already been broadcast to millions and adopted by the die-hard fans as mantras (“stay out of the forest”). Kilgariff and Hardstark are trading, intentionally or not, on the goodwill and emotional investment that already exists. Sure, Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered might win them a few more Murderinos, but I think for the most part, it goes out to the lovers. Still, for them (and I include myself), this book is a slam dunk. It’s like getting to sit in on your best friend’s therapy session. (Oh, yeah, they advocate therapy, a lot—it’s very L.A.)

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is definitely one of the better celebrity memoirs I’ve read, on par with Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. This is what I was hoping to get from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please—my wish has finally been fulfilled. Does that make Karen and Georgia my fairy godmothers? Hope so!

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Favorite Murder:

  • “haven’t read…..too busy listening to their PodCast.” – Alison Kramer
  • “…. If I wanted to hear that I should go to therapy a dozen times I’d just listen to my sister rag on me for free.” – Bellingham Bookworm
  • “this book cleared my acne and cured my depression. I love my moms Georgia and Karen, and I LOVED this book.” – Hannah @ A Reading Red Sox
  • “I love staying sexy and not getting murdered. Thank you Karen and Georgia.” – AK
  • “Buy it you true crime lover!!!” – Alex H
  • “I Laughed, I Cried, I Got Inspired! Consider me not murdered.” – Jenna T
  • “Great read! Withstands spilled beer. Would recommend.” – Zack


The Arsonist – Chloe Hooper

I know we live in an increasingly fast-paced world (the news tells me that every twenty seconds), but sometimes I still find myself wondering if a book is “too soon”. It’s been ten years since the Black Saturday fires here in Australia, but when I picked up Chloe Hooper’s book, The Arsonist, I couldn’t help but shudder. At the start of this year, we saw the worst bushfire season on record with blazes incinerating half of the country, and it proved that the wounds are still very raw. I’m still not sure, even now, that Australia is ready for this story.

The Arsonist - Chloe Hooper - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Arsonist here.
(Support an Aussie author, an Aussie publisher, AND an Aussie reviewer by doing so through an affiliate link on this page!)

Black Saturday would be familiar to all Australian readers, but for the benefit of my international Keeper Upperers, here’s a recap: the Black Saturday bushfires burned across the southern state of Victoria on Saturday 7 June 2009, fueled by extreme weather conditions, mismanagement, and (as the title of this book would suggest) arson. It was among Australia’s all-time worst bushfire disasters (and we’ve had plenty of them, so that’s saying something), resulting in Australia’s highest-ever bushfire-related loss of life – 180 recorded human fatalities – and an accommodation crisis for the countless communities ravaged by the flames, with over 3,500 homes destroyed. I wasn’t living in Victoria at the time of the fires, but I remember the wall-to-wall news coverage that went on for weeks, and I’ve lived there in the intervening years. Black Saturday is burned (for lack of a more appropriate idiom) into every Victorian’s memory. Hooper does give what (I hope) would be enough background information in the book itself for any reader, local or otherwise, to understand what happened that weekend.

“Soon it would be known as Black Saturday: four hundred separate fires had burned in Victoria, giving off the equivalent of 80,000 kilowatts of heat, or 500 atomic bombs.”

The Arsonist, Page 37

The Arsonist focuses on two specific fires in the Latrobe Valley (though, as per the excerpt above, there were many more): how they started, the investigation, the trial, and the verdict. Hooper has described Latrobe Valley as “the forgotten fire”. At the time, most of the news coverage focused on the larger fires at Kinglake and Marysville; later, the restrictions on news coverage of the trial meant that the public didn’t hear much about it until all was said and done. I guess this is Hooper’s way of correcting the record.

The blurb sets out her purpose: “What kind of person would deliberately set a firestorm? What kind of mind?”





I can only imagine that the first pages were the most difficult to write, the ones where Hooper describes the fire and the initial police investigation into its causes. The details are horrifying: “even when brand-new toilets were flushed, the water was black” (page 35). I was in tears before 40 pages had passed: this is not a book for the sensitive or squeamish. (Seriously, even if you’re thinking “oh, but I’m normally fine with true crime”, don’t assume that you’re prepared for the awful power of fire, and the way that Hooper unravels this story.) She balances these descriptions, though, with more general and historical information – not sugar to help the medicine go down, exactly, but room to breathe between the scenes.

Hooper acknowledges the Indigenous history of using fire as a cultivation tool in the bush, which was a pleasant surprise, and she touches on that history repeatedly throughout. She also describes the DSM definition of pyromania, provides contextual statistics about unemployment in the Valley, and so on. She provides an account of the police arson chemist, George Xydias (who also investigated the Bali Bombings), following the trail of clues that led the police to suspect arson, to the witness reports of a strange man wandering around carrying his dog. That man was Brendan Sokaluk, the man who would (eventually) be charged and tried for the crime.

The Arsonist is divided into sections, each giving a different perspective on what happened that day and in the months that followed: the detectives, the lawyers, and so forth. The opening section, about the fire itself and the initial police investigation, might seem a bit one-eyed at first, as though Hooper is simply saying “here’s a creepy guy who set fire to a beloved area and killed a bunch of people”. But if you keep reading, through to the section with the barrister’s perspective, Hooper starts to claw some of the balance back, bringing in a counterpoint: “here’s a maligned man with intellectual disabilities, who doesn’t understand the gravity of what’s happening, who watches Thomas The Tank Engine, who just wants to see his dog”. Sokaluk is far from a sympathetic character, but Hooper at least makes him multi-dimensional.





Hooper draws from court transcripts and other documents to provide the reader with as much detail and context as possible, in a mostly-linear timeline. She doesn’t offer conclusions or judgements; in fact, Hooper is barely present in the book at all. She writes from a detached third-person perspective (until the final chapter, her coda, where she describes the process of researching and writing the book, and her attempts to reach Sokaluk for an interview). It’s the same approach, the same “vibe”, as the Netflix series Making A Murderer (actually, if you liked that show, this is definitely the book for you!).

While The Arsonist is ostensibly about Sokaluk and his trial, it has broader significance. It’s about the struggles of regional and rural Australians, especially those living in coal mining towns. It’s about poverty. It’s about climate change. It’s about our understanding of mental illness and developmental disorders, and how they’re handled in our educational, medical, and judicial systems. And, of course, it’s about arson. Hooper taught me a lot about the nature of this type of crime – not just the person who commits it, but how it is investigated and prosecuted. Very few bushfire arsonists are ever “caught” – around 1% is the best estimate. Given that 37% of the many bushfires in this country are deemed “suspicious”, that number seems jaw-droppingly low.

While The Arsonist is meticulous and detailed, it’s not necessarily comprehensive. The subsequent Royal Commission into the Black Saturday bushfires is mentioned a couple of times, but not covered in depth. Hooper ends the book with Sokaluk’s imprisonment, and the reactions of his family and community to his conviction. Don’t come to The Arsonist expecting “answers”. It’s not a thrilling police procedural where the bad guy is hunted down by the good guys and gets what’s coming to him. It’s an intimate portrait of a man who was found guilty of a horrendous crime, with many questions left lingering as to how, why, and even whether.

I recommend The Arsonist to true crime fans who worry that they’re completely numb after endless accounts of grisly serial murders. And, of course, I recommend it to all Australians who remember that day – but only if you think you can stomach it. (Seriously, trigger warning for fire and general horror!) Perhaps it’s too soon, perhaps not, but either way I’m grateful to Hooper for her attention and dedication in recounting this story and recording it for posterity.

If you want to know more about the Black Saturday fires and Brendan Sokaluk, I highly. recommend Brendan Sokaluk: Inside The Mind Of An Arsonist from the ABC, and The Burning Question, an episode of Australian Story.


« Older posts