Sunday, February 20, 2005

Family Business by Sybil A. Johnson

“Family Business” by Sybil A. Johnson, Crimson Dagger, February 2005

This is a cozy tale of greed, pride and long-hidden secrets.

The story opens with the aftermath of a fire in retail store in a small town. The owners, a married couple, are on vacation leaving their daughter, Rory (short for Aurora), in charge. Almost immediately we are introduced to a rabid chief of police, Chief Marshall, that is bound and determined to hang a charge of arson on Rory. Rory can’t understand why anyone would think she would burn down her parents’ store. Chet Carlson, a Councilman, comes on-scene and runs interference for Rory.

Rory knows she was adopted but knows nothing about her birth parents. An article about the fire in the paper that almost accuses her of arson talks about another string of arsons when Rory was two. She goes to the library and researches those earlier fires, finding out that her birth parents who died in one of those fires were accused of the arson. The police chief’s wife and toddler daughter were also killed in one of the fires.

The police chief, still foaming at the mouth, arrests Rory. Out on bail, Rory is attacked while cleaning up the store. She marks her attacker, but is knocked unconscious. When she comes to in the midst of another fire, Mad Dog Marshall is there ready to slap the darbies on her again. She has to find a way to clear herself and prove the identity of the real arsonist.

With the exception of the over-the-top reactions of Mad Dog Marshall, the first three-quarters of this story is well written. The last section reads like Ms. Johnson noticed she was reaching the length limit and had to short shrift chains of events that should have been played out at greater length.

Other than that I have two major quibbles with the story. The first is that people in this day and age would believe that a tendency to commit arson would be an inheritable trait. This story takes place in a small town, not a school for the mentally challenged. I grew up in a small town, and even back in the ‘50s and ‘60s no one I knew would have believed that.

The other major quibble is that the final actions of the real arsonist were not adequately set up in the body of the story. There was a hint early on about bad feelings between the villain and Rory’s current family, but that wasn’t enough to make the final scene believable.

In short, quick out of the gate, but faltered in the stretch.