Grave Surprise follows Grave Sight in Charlaine Harris’s new series about the adventures of Harper Connelly, a lightning-strike victim who can now see the dead, at least as long as she’s touching their graves.
But seeing the dead isn’t Harper’s only talent. She can also experience their last moments and state their cause of death – which makes her useful to grieving family members, but also to the police, if they can get past their skepticism and over their suspicions that she’s a fake. Though only in her early twenties, Harper makes a decent living doing her graveside readings. But she needs the protection and support of her step-brother Tolliver as she has residual physical effects from the lightning strike. Theirs is a mostly nomadic lifestyle, going from town to town and state to state in the course of their strange business.
Grave Surprise begins when Harper is called in to do a reading of an entire cemetery for Professor Clyde Nunley, who teaches “An Open Mind” at Bingham College in Memphis. Recently this cemetery’s records have been found, and since Nunley believes Harper to be a fraud, he thinks this is a wonderful opportunity to debunk and humiliate her. Unfortunately, during the course of the reading, Harper finds two bodies in one grave. One is that of a young man, long deceased and well accounted for, and the other is that of Tabitha Morgenstern, a missing child from Nashville whose case Harper was called in on as a consultant some eighteen months before. Harper and Tolliver immediately suspect a set-up, but it seems paranoid to think the murderer stashed Tabitha’s body somewhere else and then dug it up and buried it at Bingham just so Harper could discover it there. Or is it? But set-up or not, it looks like Harper and Tolliver will be staying put until they or the police can figure out their connection with Tabitha.
This series is written in the style and tone of Harris’s Lily Bard series, which is good news for me since I love them. Both Lily and Harper live in somewhat insecure worlds and both have been the victims of discrimination because of their differences. Consequently, both of them see the world in a bit of a jaundiced light. Also in both series, the threat of violence hangs over the female protagonists, mostly the threat of violence at the hands of men. Harper comes from a very unhappy family background. Her mother was a drug addict and sometimes alcoholic, and Tolliver’s father – her step-father – was as well. Both of their childhoods were full of all kinds of neglect and insecurity and both of the struggled to take care of their younger siblings. Fortunately, out this mess came a very strong bond between Tolliver and Harper, who are not related by blood. They trust each other implicitly and are quite emotionally supportive of each other. Their relationship may eventually morph into one that could trouble some readers.
Harris’s writing style here, as per usual, is smooth and interesting. Most of the characters Harper and Tolliver come into contact with are psychologically dissected. Harris always manages to make this a natural part of the narrative without seemingly like an armchair psychologist. Due to the nature of Harper’s profession, she runs into a number of religious people who find her to be frightening or potentially dangerous [read: Spawn of Satan], but Harris treads well the fine line between description of their behavior and judgment of their belief systems. Religious people are not uniformly condemned, only evil or unkind people.
One minor weakness of the series is that the traveling nature of Harper’s business makes the pool of potential murderers in her cases smaller and easier to predict. I found it far easier to guess the killer in both books than I have found it in Harris’s previous mystery series.
Grave Surprise has a decent mystery, good characterization, and a likeable heroine with an interesting talent and career. It’s eminently readable and made for a wonderful night on the couch during this chilly fall season.