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by Joan Albarella
Mystery and Suspense Press, 2003
Review by Su Terry on May 5th 2004

Close toYou

Close to You by Joan Albarella is the third in this series about a lesbian Anglican priest and former Vietnam veteran who, of course, is also an amateur solver of mysteries. This third adventure pits the heroine against a serial rapist/killer who uses a date rape drug in order to sedate, rape, and ultimately murder the victims.

Close to You is set once again in Sheridan, a small college town in upstate New York. Nikki Barnes is serving as a faculty member and also as the chaplain for St. David University and its Medical Center. The novel opens with the arrival at the University Medical Center of the naked, raped, and comatose body of Talia Carter. Charity Daniels, Talia's partner, and Nikki Barnes, her faculty advisor, are positive that Talia did not go willingly with a man to the Three Hearts Motel. After years of sexual abuse at the hands of her prostitute mother's clients, Talia despised the touch of men. She was not only a committed lesbian, but she was also the president of the Gay and Lesbian Student Organization. Most mystifying of all is how Talia who left to pick up her brother and sister-in-law at a garage after their car broke down ended up at the motel in the first place. Later that night, when Nikki visits Talia's and Charity's apartment, she discovers the dead body of Betsey Frank and is herself attacked. This convinces Nikki that Talia's and Betsey's deaths were not the random acts of the local serial rapist, but a focused copycat using the same MO. The investigation reunites Nikki and Max Mullen, a Sheridan detective and former Vietnam vet. The investigation introduces Ana Ramos, Max's temporary partner, into the character mix. Ana was transferred from the Buffalo Police Department after she violated the traditional police code of silence by "ratting" on her former partner's abuse of his wife. Ana is determined to prove herself to be "a good cop" and reliable partner her new setting. Also new to the cast is Taylor Fleming, the wheelchair bound, Commissioner of the County Office for the Handicapped. Taylor breaks stereotypes as a sexy and sexually active challenged person. She is also a formidable competitor for Nikki's affection to the long-suffering, but ever-caring Dr. Gina Clayton, Nikki's partner and Barrett Fairburn, Nikki's former student and not so secret admirer, who is forever tripping into danger.

Like the previous books in this series (Agenda for Murder, and Call to Kill) the plot is about more than just getting "the bad guys." It grapples with unique and difficult issues. Agenda for Murder dealt with the issues of clergy-parishioner & student -teacher boundaries as well as the issue of abortion. In Call to Kill, Albarella dealt with the impact of war on human beings. She looks not only at its long term psychological impact on soldiers, but also the devastating cultural disruption on the local war torn community, including the rejection of biracial children, the ostracism of their mothers, and the resulting prostitution as a fact of survival. In Close to You the author deals with homophobia and rape. The usage and discussion of the date rape drugs makes this novel relevant for today's campus. I have mentioned before the very realistic picture of the role of female clergy and especially lesbian clergy in today's world. Ana Ramos is real in her struggle with the professional ethics of the "blue code" of silence. This novel also adds a wonderful breath of fresh air to the desires and abilities of physically challenged individuals. Taylor Fleming is wonderful as a vibrant and sexy woman. I look forward to her reappearance and future complications in the series. Before you feel like your light reading has ventured into a ethic treatise, I must say that the book is filled with plenty of action, and enough red herrings to keep the reader guessing. Let me reaffirm that the Nikki Barnes series is neither lesbian erotica nor a lesbian diatribe against "the bad guys". It is a satisfying read for women regardless of their sexual orientation. Nikki is first and foremost a woman struggling with the issues facing a modern campus and her role as a female clergy.

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 three books in "Nikki Barnes Mystery Series" including, Agenda for Murder (1999); Call to Kill (2000); and Close to You (2003). "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."

Close to You by Joan Albarella is more than another campus/medical center mystery. The book focuses upon the hot topic of homophobia, rape, and date-rape drugs. It is light in a cozy mystery way, but with a dash of modern ethics. I highly recommend this book for the honesty of its character depictions, and the currency and relevance of its issues for today's campus.

© 2004Su 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.


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