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On the day that became known as Black Saturday, one man deliberately lit two fires near the small town of Churchill, Gippsland, then sat on the roof of his house and watched the flames. The Arsonist, by the acclaimed author of The Tall Man, is the story of that man, the fire he lit, and the people who were killed.

The Arsonist takes readers inside the hunt for a fire-lighter. After Black Saturday, a February 2009 day marked by 47 degree heat and firestorms, arson squad detectives arrived at a plantation on the edge of a 26,000-hectare burn site. Eleven people had just been killed and hundreds made homeless. Here, in the Latrobe Valley, where Victoria’s electricity is generated, and the rates of unemployment, crime and domestic abuse are 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 tells a remarkable detective story, as the police close in on someone they believe to be a cunning offender; and a puzzling psychological story, as defence lawyers seek to understand the motives of a man who, they claimed, was a naïf that had accidentally dropped a cigarette.

It is the story not only of this fire – how it happened, the people who died, the aftermath for the community – but of fire in this country. What it has done, what it has meant, what it might yet do. Bushfire is one of Australia’s deepest anxieties, never more so than when deliberately lit. Arson, wrote Henry Lawson, expresses a malice ‘terrifying to those who have seen what it is capable of. You never know when you are safe.’

As she did in The Tall Man, Chloe Hooper takes us to a part of the country seldom explored, and reveals something buried but essential in our national psyche. The bush, summertime, a smouldering cigarette – none of these will feel the same again.

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Reviews

Gripping, gritty and unsparing but never gratuitous in its details, this is true crime writing at its best. But Hooper goes beyond the procedurals and the scene setting to examine the greater context of the tragedy.

The Saturday Paper

A cool appraisal of a hot issue...Hooper's account of the terrible crime that traumatised a community is even-handed and nuanced - so much so that, by the end of the book, it's difficult to discern where her sympathies lie: victims or accused?

The Guardian

In The Arsonist, Hooper reignites the memories of those cataclysmic events [of Black Saturday] with relentless, devastating effect.

Australian Book Review

Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire stokes the coals of a national tragedy almost a decade after it occurred, providing a hyper-detaile­d examination of how and why one man deliberately helped fan an inferno ... there turn out to be no easy answers.

The Australian

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Formats & editions

  • Audio Download

    9780143792765

    October 15, 2018

    Penguin Random House Australia Audio

    RRP $27.99

    Online retailers

    • iBooks
    • Audible AU
    • Google Play Audio AU
    • Kobo Audiobook
  • The Arsonist
    Chloe Hooper

    Paperback

    9781760895242

    December 3, 2019

    Penguin

    272 pages

    RRP $22.99

    Online retailers

    • Amazon
    • Angus & Robertson Bookworld
    • Booktopia
    • Dymocks
    • Abbey's Bookshop
    • Boomerang Books
    • Collins Booksellers
    • Books Kinokuniya
    • QBD
    • Readings
    • Robinsons Bookshop
    • The Nile
    Or

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • Trade Paperback

    9780670078189

    October 15, 2018

    Hamish Hamilton

    272 pages

    RRP $34.99

    Online retailers

    • Amazon
    • Angus & Robertson Bookworld
    • Booktopia
    • Dymocks
    • Abbey's Bookshop
    • Boomerang Books
    • Collins Booksellers
    • Books Kinokuniya
    • QBD
    • Readings
    • Robinsons Bookshop
    • The Nile
    Or

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • Hardback

    9780143795551

    October 15, 2018

    Hamish Hamilton

    272 pages

    RRP $39.99

    Online retailers

    • Amazon
    • Angus & Robertson Bookworld
    • Booktopia
    • Dymocks
    • Abbey's Bookshop
    • Boomerang Books
    • Collins Booksellers
    • Books Kinokuniya
    • QBD
    • Readings
    • Robinsons Bookshop
    • The Nile
    Or

    Find your local bookstore at booksellers.org.au

  • EBook

    9781743485521

    October 15, 2018

    Penguin eBooks

    272 pages

    Online retailers

    • Amazon Kindle AU
    • iBooks
    • Google Play EBook AU
    • Kobo Ebook
    • Booktopia
    • eBooks

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.

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Awards and Recognition

  • Indie Book Awards
    2019
    Winner
    Non-fiction
  • Stella Prize
    2019
    Longlisted
    Stella Prize
  • Victorian Premier's Literary Awards
    2019
    Shortlisted
    Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards

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