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Brides of Blood by Joseph Koenig

First published in 1993; digital edition published by MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media on June 19, 2012 

A member of SAVAK, Iran's secret police, is acquitted of the rape and murder of two women he had detained for questioning. Darius Bakhtiar, the prosecutor who lost the rigged trial, takes justice into his own hands. Although the intercession of a politically connected uncle prevents Darius from being executed, the act of vigilante justice will eventually come back to haunt him.

Ten years later, when a sexually mutilated prostitute is murdered, the religious authorities in Tehran do not believe the killing warrants investigation. Darius decides to defy the religious authorities and investigate anyway. The murder of a second woman seems to be related to the first. Darius cares about dead women in a society that doesn't value women at all -- or at least that is the conceit that drives the tale. Uncovering the reason for their deaths leads Darius down a dangerous path involving heroin and mycotoxins and the Brides of Blood, female warriors for radical Islam.

Darius isn't getting along well with his wife, giving Joseph Koenig a chance to describe the quaint divorce customs practiced by devout Muslims. Yet Darius (unlike his wife) is hardly devout: he drinks alcohol, prays only when necessary to keep up appearances, and embraces certain values he developed as a student in the United States (where he apparently learned his law enforcement style by watching Dirty Harry movies).

All of this makes for a moderately interesting story that is peppered with vivid images of torture and bleak descriptions of Iranian society. It is also a story written with a heavy hand. There is little doubt that life for Iranian women was brutal during the mid-1990s, particularly women who were considered "westernized." Yet Brides of Blood often reads more like a political polemic than a thriller. If the point of Brides of Blood is to deliver the message that fundamentalist Islam is evil, it does so without subtlety. Every female character is either a religious fanatic (like Darius' wife) or the miserable victim of religious fanatics.

Although most of Brides of Blood takes place in Tehran, it has little sense of place. We're given street and neighborhood names but scant description, nothing that brings the city alive. Koenig pays occasional lip-service to Iran's rich heritage and culture but fails to bring the country alive.  The novel is filled with violence and torture, but it all seems too familiar. Toward the end the plot devolves into an unconvincing love story. Even less convincing are the characters who reveal their motives in long conversations during gun battles.

Brides of Blood tells a quick-moving, action-filled story. Had Koenig's depiction of Iranian society been more nuanced and had his characters been less wooden, I would have been more enthused. As it stands, my recommendation is half-hearted.


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