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.
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.”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 neurodevelopmental 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.