The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire

By Chloe Hooper Penguin Random House

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.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island 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

Chloe Hooper brings her assured novelist’s eye to the topic of arson, moved to uncover what it is that makes someone light potentially deadly fires.

The Arsonist is a profoundly sharp and inquisitive journey into the psyche of the person found responsible for the Black Saturday Churchill fires. Hooper always chooses subjects of deep resonance to her readership, managing to hone-in on the precise details of the case at hand. Blame is never simply apportioned in one direction, and the questions about the way society deals with people who are different are compellingly brought to bear. We are never told what to think and, to Hooper’s great credit, there is always room for the reader’s interpretation.

This is a masterful work of nonfiction that examines the minute detail and expansive impact of Black Saturday, addressing how we manage bushfires in a time of catastrophic climate change.

Further reading


‘In Hooper’s sure hands the grimmest details become exquisite imagery. Though strange to report, there can even be beauty in arson’s aftermath…’ Robert Drewe, Sydney Morning Herald

‘In The Arsonist, Hooper reignites the memories of those cataclysmic events with relentless, devastating effect.’ Fiona Gruber, Australian Book Review

‘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


Read an interview with Chloe Hooper in the Sydney Morning Herald

Read Chloe Hooper on The Arsonist in the Guardian Australia

Listen to Chloe Hooper speak about The Arsonist with Anna Krien at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas