In the late 1960s, the Hamilton Valley was plagued by over 300 arson attacks administered by a malicious pyromaniac who torched the houses, sheds and cars of increasingly terrified local residents. Cheryl and Leonie Alldis, two sisters that grew up in the valley at the time of the attacks, have written a partly fictional account of the period called Red Hot. Read on to find out more about this true Australian crime mystery.
Can you explain the terrifying events that Red Hot is based upon?
Red Hot is based on true events from 1964-1968 when a crazed arsonist went on a rampage, setting out to destroy the once tranquil Hamilton Valley in NSW and the people in it. The lunatic terrorised the Valley folk several times a week with up to four fires in one night. The fruit growing community lived in fear of burning in their beds.
It’s a fascinating story of what a once peaceful and happy community went through and how their lives were changed by one lunatic.
Do you remember seeing some of these fires firsthand? What was it like growing up in a town besieged by random arson attacks?
We were victims of the ‘Invisible Firebug’ as he was dubbed. We lost a huge shed full of valuable items our parents owned. A car and another outbuilding were torched, and there were several grass fires surrounding our property. We lived on 22 acres and would watch as other property owners’ fruit packing sheds and huge haystacks went up in flames, along with their livelihoods. The wail of sirens became the norm, as did living in fear. No longer could we roam the valley freely, walk through the orchards picking fruit; it was so extreme we could not even go to the outside toilet alone anymore. One Christmas Eve the hills surrounding us went up and the entire valley looked like it was lost. That was horrifying and is still so very vivid in our minds.
Worse was to come when he targeted homes. It was a living nightmare.
Red Hot also reveals scandals and a well-kept secret that could explain this act of obsessive vengeance.
How did you both come to the decision that you’d write a book about the arson attacks?
We were always talking about the firebug mystery over the years, it was such a unique crime, the way he set the fires and got away without being noticed, you never forget something like that. One day over lunch we just decided to write the story as it is worth telling. It would make a magnificent mini-series! There is no other story like it out there.
Writing together was great as we bounced off each other really well, also both living the tale as young girls we worked easily together to craft a realistic and visual read. We went back to the valley and met up with other relatives again, those who lived the terror as well. It was really an amazing experience, sometimes very emotional.
The wail of sirens became the norm, as did living in fear.
Are you both avid readers? Did any books in particular influence Red Hot?
Yes, we are both avid readers. No, no other book influenced us there, because Red Hot is a story based on fact and we knew the story before we put pen to paper. We just wrote from the heart and our own memories, and for the fiction parts we let our creative minds influence us. Many times we were in fits of laughter writing the ‘hotter’ parts, this was a good thing because at times we felt like we were back in the thick of it, all over again.
What kind of research did you undertake for the book?
We have the original newspaper articles from the sixties in between parts one and two of the 626 page read. Many of the residents were our family, and four of the properties belonged to our immediate relatives, who were fruit growers and farmers. We visited them and went over the whole ordeal. We also spoke with ex-detectives from that time who are still in the town and the fire fighters who battled the flames year after year. We also talked with other victims who are still alive and journos.
Everyone had and has their suspicions to this day.
To what extent to fact and fiction intermingle in Red Hot?
We have 75 percent fact I suppose, maybe a tad more. We have changed the characters names obviously and of course the ‘intimate scenes’ are created. The fires of course are factual, so is the court case of the young fellow accused. The situations that erupted from the accusations hurled at each other are all factual, the meetings held to try to arrange stakeouts and find answers to the horror, all are real. We wanted the truth and the actual fear the residents endured to come through.
What has the response been from people who live in that region, or remember experiencing the attacks themselves?
They were very helpful, it was fantastic to hear the memories they had to tell and to hear how they were able to get through that time themselves emotionally, although a couple of people didn’t like the story being dragged up. We question that … we wonder why. Two in particular were rude and angry. That just makes us think they know more than they are letting on. Red Hot does reveal a few scandals! The whole saga ruined life-long friendships, shattering them beyond repair. The firebug destroyed more than material things, he ruined lives completely. Several locals had severe breakdowns, never to recover. Red Hot tells not just about fires, it tells about a community desperate to survive, desperate to protect their families and livelihoods.
Why do you think it’s important that this story is revisited?
It’s a fascinating story of what a once peaceful and happy community went through and how their lives were changed by one lunatic. It is a story that tells of a crime where even interstate detectives could not capture the perpetrator. For years they would patrol and hide on our properties in the dark of night to still have the crazed arsonist elude capture. Not only were the locals frustrated, so were the police. The local farmers and fruit growers patrolled their properties armed with shotguns threatening to shoot anyone who entered their place after dark. The local police hated doing their shifts in the valley as they were worried they too could get shot if a desperate local mistook them for the firebug. It is simply a different type of crime mystery ‘whodunit’ to anything else out there. We are talking about a person who was obviously very clever and extremely dangerous who walked among the valley people, and even though he must have been well known in the community, he was invisible to all.
Through the writing and researching of this book, did you get any closer to solving the mysterious identity of the Invisible Firebug?
Everyone had and has their suspicions to this day. The ending of the book is a surprise and satisfies, there are two mysteries interwoven that will explain it all.
Red Hot by Cheryl and Leonie Alldis, rrp $32.99.