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Agenda for MurderReview - Agenda for Murder
by Joan Albarella
Rising Tide Press, 1999
Review by Su Terry
Jul 5th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 27)

Agenda for Murder by Joan Albarella is the first in this series about a lesbian Anglican priest, former Vietnam vet and of course, amateur detective. This first adventure finds our heroine investigating deadly deeds at a small college medical center.

Agenda for Murder is set in the small college town of Sheridan in upstate New York. Nikki Barnes is serving as the chaplain for St. David University. Nikki has taken a ‘leave of absence’ from the parish to grapple with her identity as an Anglican priest in a denomination that rejects her identity as a lesbian. In her capacity as chaplain, Dean Haslett has sent Nikki to the University’s Medical Center for PR “damage control” in the guise of comforting the staff and patients after the on-site murder of the Center’s beloved GYN/OB physician, Dr. Shari Sullivan. Sullivan had a reputation for assisting any woman who desires to have a child to deliver or adopt one. She also, much against the Center’s denominational stance, performs an abortion or two. While loved by most, she is not liked by a few. This includes the Center’s ambitious administrator, Dr. Sheldon Peterson, Jr., his student lover and assistant, Lisa Holt, and his laky, the physician’s assistant/medical student, Eugene Blake, who is desirous of becoming a GYN/OB himself. At the Center, Nikki becomes reacquainted with Max Mullen, the detective in charge of the case. Nikki and Max’s friendship go back to Vietnam where they both volunteered as pastoral chaplains to the dying. When Nikki is bashed in the head after returning to her office from the Center, the case becomes personal. Assisting Max in his investigation, Nikki discovers more about the personal lives of her colleagues and students than she cares to know. Can Nikki and Max find the murder before s/he strikes again?

Nikki Barnes as the priest/war vet/professor of ethics is an exceedingly well-drawn character. She is challenged again and again to reassess her identity as female priest and as a lesbian in Christian ministry. Her issues are the headlines one can and does read in the current issues of Christian Century and Christianity Today. Also, her ethical principles regarding teacher-student and clergy-counselee boundaries are tested as first, Barrett Fairburn, one of her student and then Dr. Ginni Clayton, a doctor she is asked to counsel turns intimate. Beyond Nikki, this novel is filled with atypical characters. Dr. Peterson, the Center’s administrator, is gleefully wicked with his greedy schemes, his attempts to cover the racial identity of his current wife by keeping a photo of a more politically acceptable former wife on his desk, and his well-known affair with his sexy student assistant. Barrett as the rich rebellious student who lusts for Nikki is an interesting character. Barrett is more than just a rebel with a cause…getting into culinary school and Nikki’s bed. She has a genuine caring side that is there with chicken soup and yet knows how to intimidate ambulance attendants when necessity demands it. (I hope I will see more of her in future mysteries.) Shari Sullivan, only seen through other’s description is equally interesting in her desire to sustain a desired pregnancy at any cost and her willingness to buck the hierarchy to perform abortions.

Agenda for Murder is in fact more than a light novel read today and forgotten tomorrow. It is neither lesbian eroticism with a plot thrown in for cohesiveness nor is it a social rant with a lesbian Rambo beating up “the bad guys”. There is plenty of action, plenty of plot and red herrings, and plenty of sexual tension. It is the best of the lesbian mystery genre that I have read to date. More than a mystery, however, this is an excellent novel about moral and professional boundaries. This is a very realistic picture of the position of female clergy and especially lesbian clergy in today’s world. This mystery offers grappling with the real moral, ethical, and social issues that challenge Christian clergy as humans and sexual beings in a society that is often hostile to them as moral leaders and as religious authority figures.

Joan Albarella is an Associate Professor at the University of Buffalo Educational Opportunity Center. She is the author of four books of poetry entitled: Mirror Me (1973); Poems for The Asking (1975); Spirit and Joy; and the bilingual Mujeres, Flores, Fantasia. There are two books in  “Nikki Barnes Mystery Series" Agenda for Murder (1999) and Call to Kill (2000). “She was recognized by J. Mark Press in the Reader Vote Award for Best Poem in Notable American Poets; by the International Biographical Centre of England as International Woman of the Year in 1992 and received the Twentieth Century Award of Achievement in 1993. She also won the Oxner-Lytle Distinguished Service award in 1999 and is listed in over twenty-two American and British Who's Who collections. Joan is a member of Poets and Writers; Sisters In Crime; and the Italian American Writers Association”

Agenda for Murder is an excellent mystery and fictional treatise on ethics. This is more than a light afternoon’s read. It challenges the reader to think about issues for beyond the nature of crime. I highly recommend this book.

 

 

© 2002 Su Terry

Su Terry: Education: B.A. in History from Sacred Heart University, M.L.S. in Library Science from Southern Connecticut State College, M.R.S. in Religious Studies/Pastoral Counseling from Fairfield University, a M.Div. in Professional Ministry from New Brunswick Theological Seminary, a Certificate in Spirituality/Spiritual Direction from Sacred Heart University. She is a Licensed Minister of the United Church of Christ and an Assistant Professor in Library Science at Dowling College, Long Island, NY. Interests in Mental Health: She is interested in the interplay between psychology, biology, and mysticism. Her current area of research is in the impact of hormonal fluctuation in female Christian mystics.


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