So far the pattern has been remarkably consistent. Most of the fires have occurred in poor neighborhoods of rickety, wooden triple-deckers. The property is cheap and ripe for redevelopment. The fires generally start in vacant buildings, many with large back tax bills. By the time firefighters arrive, many fires are so advanced that it is necessary to call in other companies, sometimes from neighboring cities.

When the wave of arson started on June 11, the fires seemed confined to Friday mornings. But as the epidemic grew to more than 225 fires classified as incendiary or suspicious, they have begun to occur throughout the week.

With more than $5 million in damage in the three-month summer period, officials say the fires are now occurring at a rate of two a day.

Until last week the arsons had resulted in no fatalities. But the arson squad now is investigating a fire Thursday in Boston's South End in which 4-year-old Daniel Soltren died.

The fire department, ravaged by budget cuts, has made little headway in solving the cases. There have been a handful of arrests, but none seems linked to a large number of the fires.

To most outsiders, Boston is the city symbolized by its famous universities, the elegant 19th-century mansions of Back Bay and Beacon Hill, the outdoor concerts on the Boston Common and the Charles River esplanade, and the fabulous Quincy Market in the waterfront redevelopment area. Mayor Kevin H. White frequently calls it a "livable city."

But the summer fires typify a darker side of Boston. It is a city suffering from financial anemia, serious racial problems, ongoing political corruption and a disintegration of city services in the poorer neighborhoods.

A report published in August by the Brookings Institution concluded that Boston is one of the nine most seriously declining major U.S. cities. It has high unemployment, pervasive crime, poverty and a large percentage of old, deteriorated housing. The study found that, when factors indicating "distress" and "decline" were combined, Boston and Cleveland tied for worst.

The racial hatred that has scarred the city since well before court-ordered busing began in 1974 continues to produce frequent racial incidents and violence.

In perhaps the first case of its kind in the country, Massachusetts Superior Court Chief Justice James P. Lynch Jr. issued an order last month barring a group of seven white youths from harassing black families in Boston's Hyde Park neighborhood.

One of the young men had been accused of violating the order within a week by exposing himself in front of the home of a black couple and urinating in the direction of one of the residents. He was charged with open and gross lewdness, a felony, and violation of a civil rights injunction. He was sentenced earlier this month to 60 days in jail for violating the court's injunction.

At a recent news conference, White unveiled a pile of cash that an insurance industry group has put together to offer as reward money in the arson cases. But White and acting Fire Chief George Paul have said they believe the fires are mostly the work of vandals rather than an organized arson-for-profit ring.

Many people in Boston disagree.

Boston suffered from a tremendous arson epidemic in 1977 that was cracked only after a citizens' group tracked down the arsonists.

Boston City Councilor Raymond Flynn said he believes the same thing is happening now. He and other critics say they believe the fires are part of a pattern of "gentrification," driving poor minorities out of marginal neighborhoods where the property can be bought up cheaply and transformed into luxury condominiums.

"With the insurance laws, it's much more profitable from the standpoint of the developer to have the building torched, collect on the insurance, and then build some luxury condos, than to pay to tear it down and then rebuild from the ground up," he said.

Flynn also complains that the fire department is demoralized and understaffed because of budget cuts inflicted by White after the state voted in 1980 to limit property taxes. "We had 77 fire companies before, and we're down now to 56," he said.

When White was asked at his news conference if he is willing to increase funding for the city's understaffed and outdated arson squad, he said, "I don't know. Everybody wants more money."

Firefighters have admitted privately for some time that they are distressed about conditions in the department.

Last week, Lt. Rodney Horton, the hospital safety coordinator for the Boston Fire Department, went to the Boston press, claiming that Boston City Hospital, which serves the city's poor, has major fire code violations.

Horton said his complaints about blocked exits, jammed fire doors, exposed fuse boxes and wiring, improper building practices and illegal storage of flammable materials have been ignored by city officials.

White, asked about the allegations, said the hospital is in "great shape . . . . I don't need a guy in the bowels saying the whole place is burning down. I'm responsible for hospital fire safety . He isn't."

Subsequent inspections have found some violations, which a city official called "minor," but Horton, in remarks to The Boston Globe, disputed the accuracy of "this clean bill of health report."

White did not respond to requests for an interview.

Flynn charges that the mayor has shortchanged Boston's residential neighborhoods to maintain the glittering waterfront area.

"People out in the neighborhoods say that if you need a policeman the best way to find one is to drive down to the Quincy Market and bring one back with you," he said, referring to the city's renovated waterfront.

"I just don't see how he can continue to convince the people that the heart and soul of Boston is the downtown area. There's more to a city than a downtown tourist attraction . . . when you're closing police stations, fire stations, when there's a lack of recreation and jobs, when you have dirty streets and potholes."

Since the days of James Michael Curley, the notorious mayor, patronage appointments and political scandal has been looked upon in Boston as almost as much a sport as a problem, but Boston eyebrows were raised last month by the abrupt transfer of police detectives -- about 20 percent of the total number -- out of the Italian North End and into other neighborhoods. Police spokesmen have confirmed that detectives were removed from the North End after some of their names had come up in federal wiretaps.

The federal officials were investigating alleged bookmaking, loan sharking and other criminal activity by the family of reputed organized crime boss Gennaro (Jerry) Angiulo, whose operations are based in the North End.

Then, there is "Quartergate," the ongoing investigation into thefts of coins from the city's parking meters. Seven parking meter employes were arrested in July and charged with skimming as much as $700,000 a year from the meters. Some had sacks full of coins at their homes and in their cars when they were arrested. The employes have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

The Boston Globe surprised the city on July 14, Bastille Day, by running an editorial telling White not to bother to run again in 1983. White, who was first elected in 1968, always has been endorsed by the Globe.

Martin F. Nolan, who heads the editorial page, noted that while White's top employes once went on to distinguished public careers, some now leave to go to jail.

The editorial added that in 1981, faced with revenue shortages, White did not lay off his political operatives. "Instead, he trifled with the security of the city, treating police officers and firefighters as yo-yos, laying them off and rehiring them as a political symbol of Boston's fiscal distress."

"The Kevin White of 1982 . . . proves Lord Acton's saying that 'Power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.' Of the half-dozen candidates now running, any of them would be preferable to Kevin White in 1983," the editorial said.

White has said he doesn't know whether he will seek a fifth term.