In his first children's book to be published here, a well-regarded New Zealand novelist sets a story about four children bringing a pyromaniac to justice early in WW I. From its riveting first chapter--from the point of view of the lumbering masked man who sets fire to the local livery stable because ""a time had come when his fire must consume life""--the action is compelling. Noel and Kitty Wix sound the alarm in time to save the horses; knocked down by the man as he makes a hasty exit, Kitty soon realizes that he is Edgar Marwick, a reclusive, belligerent farmer. Meanwhile, Kitty's new friend is the mayor's overprotected but spunky daughter, Irene; and Noel makes an uneasy alliance with rough but intelligent Phil. Cleverly (and with a daring lack of caution), the four unearth evidence proving Marwick's guilt; meanwhile, they are involved in a jingoistic school pageant (its destructive aftermath is exacerbated by Marwick's support of local rowdies). Other subplots--a romance between their gifted, unfashionably pacifist teacher and a German-born music teacher; Phil's chance for an education--are deftly integrated. Several adult characters are as perceptively drawn as the well-realized protagonists; Marwick's madness is revealed to be the result of his mother's response to a long-ago tragedy. A well-wrought thriller that brings an entire community vividly and believably to life.