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Fire-Raising: Its Motivation and Management.

By H. Prins. (London: Routledge, 1994. 111 pages. 30.00[pounds] hb., 10.99pounds] pb.)

Professor Prins has the ability to explain complex issues simply with apt case illustrations without recourse to a tidal wave of data and his important studies on problematic issues in clinical criminology are typically written in a succinct and uncluttered style. Here, facts and theories on all aspects of the fire-raising conundrum are presented in a short monograph with plenty of references. Chapter 1 explains the plan for the book, where the first four chapters, dealing with fire in myth and culture (chapter 2), statistics and the law (chapter 3), and the forensic investigation of fire-raising (chapter 4) provide the back-drop for what follows. Chapter 5 is then concerned with the motivation and management of adult fire-raisers and chapter 6 with that for child fire-raisers. Finally chapter 7 expounds wider aspects of management and prevention.

The vexed question of classifying adult motive is raised in chapter 5 where existing classification schemes tend to suffer from overlapping categories or mixed classifications. The author, seeing his own (1985) classification as not without weaknesses, points to an illustrative overlap between categories of `dispute' and `revenge' in the Home Office (I 988) study of 214 incidents of arson and their perpetrators which categorized prime motivation as: emotional mental state (50 per cent); revenge (21.3 per cent); vandalism (I 8.2 per cent); disputes (7 per cent) and concealment of crime (3 per cent). The frequency of revenge and dispute motives, especially among recidivists (p. 60) reminds us that culturally, there is room for improvement in our virtually non-existent informal techniques of reconciliation and feud resolution.

Recognizing the difficulties posed by multiple and mixed motives, the material is presented using the categories: arson committed for financial or other reward; to conceal other crimes; for political purposes; cases of self-immolation; for mixed and unclear reasons; due to serious mental disorder; motivated by revenge; pyromania; young adult vandalism and fire-raising. Whereas in chapter 6, the author uses Wooden and Berkey's (1984) four-part classification of offenders to sort child fire-raisers: curiosity leading to fire; `cry for help' fire raisers motivated by anger at adverse home environments, with feelings of rejection and/or neglect; older youngsters engaging in arson as part of juvenile delinquency generally; and the pathological juvenile fire-raiser who sets fires repetitively.

There are urgent reasons for learning all we can about fire-raising in view of the indiscriminate threat its commission poses to life and property in a civilized society. The three main problems that complicate understanding are, unavoidable underestimates of extent, detection difficulties, and mixed motives. In the United Kingdom arson is 50 per cent of large fires where the cause is known and in 1986 the largest single category of `deliberate or possibly deliberate fires' was 'road vehicles' (39 per cent) followed by `dwellings' (20 per cent). Without highly competent emergency services the consequences would of course be enormously greater. Known incidents have inexplicably increased from 13,600 a year (in 1980) to 33,748 in 1992. One suggested answer (p. 88) is that in the increasingly regulated urban society where there are reduced opportunities (especially for children) to learn about the hazards and effects of fire (less open fires at home, bonfires, or camp-fires) the lessening in exposure might make fire seem more alluring and exciting.

Availability of means, commission rapidity, and anonymity are all high for arson, and as a result it is not unexpected that the 1992 clear up rate was 15 per cent. Most convicted offenders are male (93 per cent) and 61 per cent are under 21. This is one of many 'black hole' type crimes that draw in many different categories of offender, be it children or adults, the sane or the mentally ill, the expressive or the property criminal, and since mixed motives are frequently encountered among offenders, this further complicates detection, which is in any case likely to be difficult.

Professor Prins has assembled a mass of informative data of great use to professionals and those in the caring agencies who may be involved with treating fire-raising offenders, but the author emphasizes that, in the present state of knowledge the book is not intended as a manual offering definite answers concerning the management of individual cases. The purpose instead is to offer a framework and a synthesis to help practitioners with their own work and hopefully to further thinking from this departure point.

Dermot Walsh Department of Sociology Exeter University


Home Office (1988), Standing Conference on Crime Prevention: Report of the Working Group on the Prevention of Arson. London: HMSO.

Prins, H., Tennent, G., and Trick, K. (1985), `Motives for Arson (Fire-Raising)', Medicine, Science and the Law, 25: 275-8.

Wooden, W. S., and Berkey, M. S. (1984), Children and Arson: America's Middle Class Nightmare. New York and London: Plenum Press.
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Author:Walsh, Dermot
Publication:British Journal of Criminology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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