The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, translated by Lee Chadeayne

Looking for a historical thriller?  Some fast-paced beach reading? A page turner that you can’t put down? Oliver Pötzsch’s novel The Hangsman’s Daughter is all of those things.

The year is 1659 A.D.  Children in the Bavarian town of Schongau, specifically the orphans and bastards, are disappearing.  The bodies of those that are found each have a small tattoo on the shoulder – a known witch’s symbol.  That isn’t the only strange thing that’s been happening:  the construction site for the new leper house is being repeatedly vandalized; the Burghers’ warehouse is set on fire; and the devil has been seen on the roads at night.

Of course Schongau’s midwife, Martha, is accused of witchcraft.  The dead and missing children were known to visit her and – let’s face it – in a Medieval town it’s always the midwife who superstitious townspeople point their fingers at first.  Martha is taken prisoner and the hangman is brought in to make her confess.  What follows is a daring sprint against the clock to solve the mystery.  A week in which to find the real killer before more children are harmed, the midwife burned alive and Schongau descended into the madness of witch trials.  Jakob Kuisl (the reluctant hangman), his daughter Magdalena and the son of the town physician attempt to prevent the worst from coming to fruition.

Pötzsch has created a decent puzzle for the reader to solve along with his protagonists.  Nothing is clear-cut.  Red herrings abound.  The solution is far from obvious, but does not strain incredulity.  Jakob and the physician’s son Simon (who plays the role of Watson to Jakob’s Holmes) are appealing characters.  As is Magdalena, though I wish she’d had a larger role.  She spends more time along the fringes of her father’s and Simon’s investigation than the title suggests.  But she’s brash and earthy and one of the highlights of the novel.  The other being, of course, the hangman.

Jakob Kuisl is a kinder, gentler hangman.  He studies herbs and healing.  He keeps a library of books on those subjects which must have cost a small fortune in the 17th century. He philosophically sees his occupation – to torture and kill – as necessary to the public peace.  Despite that, he get’s drunk before being called upon by the Burghers to perform his duties…as did his father before him.  Kuisl comes from a long-line, a dynasty, of Bavarian hangmen.  Of whom the novel’s author Oliver Pötzsch is descended.  Johann Jakob Kuisl was a real life Medieval hangman. In fact the entire Kuisl family – wife, daughter and twins – actually existed.  The story may be fiction, but one of the most interesting things about The Hangman’s Daughter is that there is a tangible element of truth to it.  Genealogy.

As for the writing, it seems that lately every book out there is described as being “cinematic”.  But Oliver Pötzsch is a screenwriter for Bavarian television.  It’s not surprising that The Hangman’s Daughter reads like a script.  Which is what makes it perfect Summer reading.  This isn’t a deep, psychological glimpse into the heart of darkness.  It’s not Pillars of the Earth.  If anything, the story reminds me most of Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death.  It’s slick and clean and modern – filled with period details without becoming bogged down in them.  The company of these characters is highly addictive.  So much so that I wasn’t surprised to learn that there are two other books in the series so far.  Unfortunately, they’ve yet to be translated into English.

Publisher:  Mariner Books, New York (2011).
ISBN:  978 0 547745 01 5

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