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By Charlaine Harris
Berkley Prime Crime, 2009 ($24.95)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
To say that Harper Connelly and her step-brother/lover Tolliver Lang had grown up in a dysfunctional family is like saying Hitler had a bad temper. Harper and her older sister, Cameron, had memories of a good life with two educated, responsible parents, until drugs and alcohol took over their lives. The girls ended up in a dilapidated trailer near Texarkana with their often comatose mother, Matthew Lang, Tolliver's brutal and criminal father, and Tolliver's brother Mark. The odd parents managed to bring two more baby girls into the world, one, Mariella, fairly normal, and Gracie, born sickly due to her mother's excesses during pregnancy. While Matthew was busy doing drug deals and Mom was passed out on the couch, the older girls cared for the babies, and the boys earned money to keep them in day care while the older siblings attended school. They managed to keep their shameful home life a secret, except to their parents' clients, until the day Cameron disappeared. The police were called in, and when they witnessed the family's horrible situation, Matthew was arrested, Social Services took the babies, Tolliver went to live with Mark, and Harper was placed in a foster home. She was fortunate that the foster parents were caring and responsible, helping her get through high school with a good record.
Harper has an unusual talent, bequeathed to her when she was struck by lightning when she was sixteen. She is able to find bodies, either recently or long dead, and determine how they died. After finishing high school, she and Tolliver teamed up and turned her abilities into a money-making operation. At first, she was branded a fraud, a freak, a crazy person, or all of the above, but gradually she was able to solve some high-profile cases and earn a reputation as the real thing. She and Tolliver just solved a serial murder case in North Carolina, and are coming back to Texas to see their little sisters, now living with their Aunt Iona and Uncle Hank. Mariella is twelve, Gracie nine. Aunt Iona, a God-fearing, straight-laced Christian lady, is not pleased with their sporadic visits, insisting it upsets and confuses the girls, and Harper is hoping to find a home in Texas to be closer to them.
Before driving to the Dallas area, the team make a stop near Texarkana to do a job for Lizzie Joyce, head of a rich ranching family. Lizzie wants to know how her grandfather, Rich Joyce, really died. He'd been found in the pasture far from the house, beside his vehicle, which had been turned off. Other than a lump on his head, there were no visible signs of injury, and the doctor wrote it off as a heart attack. When Harper located his grave in the family cemetery, she verified that he had indeed died of a heart attack, but that someone else was with him and helped make that happen. Lizzie and her sister, Kate, are stunned. Their brother Drexell, a spoiled rich boy, and Lizzie's boyfriend, Chip Moseley, are unimpressed and say Harper's just making things up. They don't look so smug, though, when she goes to the grave of Rich's caretaker, Mariah Parrish, and says she'd died after giving birth, shortly before Rich's death. The official story, attested to by a doctor, was that she'd died of a ruptured appendix. Lizzie pays up, even though the men insist Harper's a fraud.
When Harper and Tolliver get to Dallas, Lizzie comes to them asking for help to find the baby. She feels that if it was her grandfather's child, the family should take responsibility. Tolliver suggests she hire Victoria Flores, an old friend and private detective with a very high success rate.
Then Tolliver is shot, and has to spend several days in the hospital and another week or so in a hotel until he's well enough to travel. The police take the case seriously, even giving Harper police protection, but that doesn't stop an attacker. One of the detectives is a friend of the man who worked on Cameron's case, and he tells Harper someone has made an anonymous tip that the girl was seen in Texarkana. A number of bad things happen at once -- is this the real thing, or just part of some larger plot to damage Harper and Tolliver?
Mark comes to visit Tolliver in the hospital, giving him the "good" news that their father is out of prison and wants to make amends. Mark is willing to forgive, but for Harper and Tolliver, that will never happen. They grow suspicious when he claims he wants to get to know his little girls, even taking pictures of them.
There is a tangled web of interconnections between the present and the past, and between Harper's family and other people they're involved with. The deeply buried secrets of two families are uncovered, innocent people get hurt, but there is finally a sense of closure for some of them.
I would read anything Charlaine Harris writes, but the Harper Connelly series is my favorite. I started this book in the evening, and could not stop until I'd finished it in the wee small hours of the morning. I highly recommend this series, and this book, to readers who like excellent story telling with just a bit of woo-woo.
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