A few months ago a friend asked for a book recommendation. Something light and easy to take on vacation. I told her to try Oliver Pötzsch’s The Hangman’s Daughter. She sent me a text when she finished telling me it was perfect. Without that exchange I don’t know if I’d have picked up The Dark Monk, the second book in the Hangman’s Daughter series. I’m glad I did.
All the characters from the original book return. The hangman of the stories is Jakob Kuisl. Magdalena is his pretty and impetuous daughter. Simon Fronwieser is the young village doctor (more or less) and Magdalena’s beau. Set in Bavaria, in the middle of 17th century, the mystery this time is linked to a Templar treasure. Not the most original plotline – the Templars and Masons have been pretty much bled dry – and in typical DaVinci Code fashion our heroes are led on a frustratingly predictable chase after a string of clues. But the draw of this kind of series isn’t the plot, it’s the characters and the world they inhabit. And, in the case of the Hangman’s Daughter books, it’s also the way Pötzsh weaves his family history into the stories. Because Jakob Kuisl the hangman and his daughter Magdalena were real people. More than that, they were Pötzsh’s ancestors.
There are plenty of historical nuggets scattered through these pages. The Kuisls spawned a dynasty of Bavarian hangmen. And in researching his family tree the author learned several interesting facts about what amounted to an exclusive society. Hangmen were responsible for the town’s garbage collection. They made additional money not just for torturing and killing the condemned, but from selling their remains in various forms. Hangmen could not be buried on hallowed ground and they married from within their class. What this means is a hangman’s daughter was only allowed to marry another hangman – which adds an interesting twist to Simon and Magdalena’s romance – one that Pötzsh may have a hard time unravelling. In the meantime, though, he’s having fun balancing facts with fiction. Both books end with notes from the author. The first discussed his family history, the second a travel guide of the region where the stories are set. His enthusiasm is catching.
The Dark Monk is interesting and entertaining, but not particularly challenging. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all love the classic beach or airplane read. The history raises it a level above most other books in the category. Oliver Pötzsh’s gift was in realizing what he had. And until a non-fiction book comes out, or Ken Follett develops an obsession for the medieval Bavarian hangmen, Pötzsh seems to have a monopoly that guarantees his readers will keep coming back.
The English translation of the third book of the series, The Beggar King, is due out January 8th, 2013.
Publisher: Mariner Books, New York (2012)
ISBN: 978 05478 0768 3