Grave Surprise (2006) is the second fantasy mystery novel in the Harper Connelly series, following Grave Sight. In the previous volume, the final confrontation and shootout exposes the secrets of almost everybody. Harper and Tolliver are lucky to get out of town alive.
In this novel, Harper is hired to give a demonstration for an occult studies class in a newly documented graveyard in Memphis, Tennessee. The contract is issued by Bingham College for the class of Professor Clyde Nonley. As far as Harper is concerned, the Professor is a professional jerk.
The graveyard is on the grounds of the college and a detailed list of burials and causes of death had been discovered about three months previously. At first, the professor enjoys directing Harper from grave to grave, but her detailed answers to his queries are beginning to upset his preconceptions. Then he directs her to a grave up against the fence around the cemetery.
At first, Harper declares the occupant to be a young girl and the professor gleefully states that she is wrong. Then Harper notices that another set of bones lies in a coffin below the girl's body. Then she suddenly recognizes the identity of the most recent body.
Tabitha Morgenstern had disappeared in Nashville about eighteen months prior to her rediscovery. Harper had been called in a month after the disappearance and had followed every possible lead within the Nashville area before giving up on the case. Maybe the body had been in Memphis even before she had started her search.
In this story, Joel Morgenstern and his first wife were originally from Memphis, but had moved to Nashville during their marriage. Whitney Morgenstern birthed Victor and then died from cancer in Nashville. Two years later, Joel married Diane and she raised her stepson from a baby. Then their daughter Tabitha was born in Nashville.
Since Harper had only known the Morgensterns in Nashville, she is definitely surprised to learn that the family is now living in Memphis. Joel had apparently brought his wife back home about a year ago. Since then, Diane has become pregnant and is expecting a son. She is very close to birthing the baby.
The Morgensterns are very grateful to Harper for finally finding the body of their daughter. They invite Harper and Tolliver over for lunch to share the food offerings from their friends. There Harper meets other members of the family, including Fred Hart, the father of Whitney and Felicia. Of course, both Harper and Tolliver know Felicia Hart as Victor's aunt. They also meet Joel's parents -- Judy and Ben -- and his brother David.
Harper and Victor had previously shared a moment of shared grief in Nashville, so he confides several bits of information with her at the luncheon. Interrupted before he can finish his confession, Harper is pleased that Victor later shows up at the hotel. Unhappily, so does his uncle David, who speaks somewhat coarsely at Harper and gets punched in the stomach by Tolliver.
This story seems to be a setup, for Tabitha had obviously been moved from another grave. Who had instigated the hiring of Harper to read the occupants of the old cemetery? Their only lead, Professor Nonley, is killed shortly after Tabitha's exhumation and then placed in the open grave.
This case reminds Harper of her missing sister Cameron. She had vanished while on her way home from school. Only her backpack had been recovered, despite years of searching by Harper. At least Tabitha's body had been found to provide closure for her parents.
Since this reviewer tends to become absorbed into the story, the conclusion came as a surprise. However, it would seem to be more obvious by hindsight. Harper should have been savvy enough to sense the murderer much earlier from personal contacts. Or maybe the truth is just easier to see after the facts are laid out for inspection. After all, Harper is not able to read the living as well as she does the dead.
One wonders why so many reviewers insist on comparing the author's different series, often to the determent of this series? Often authors start new series to try different ideas and maybe different treatments. So many reviewers of the first book in this series rejected it because of its dissimilarities with prior series. Should the author just keep on writing the same storyline long after the enjoyment has withered away? At least this volume seems to have been accepted so far without cries of dejection from disappointed reviewers.
Highly recommended for Harris fans and for anyone else who enjoys tales of esoteric talents, personal development, and slowly budding romance.
-Arthur W. Jordin