On a Book: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

Thanks to Amazon’s AmazonCrossing that focuses on the translation of foreign novels into English, Pötzsch’s successful German novel, The Hangman’s Daughter, has been made available to the English-speaking masses.

Set in the mid-1600s in Bavarian following the Thirty-Year War, it focuses on a hangman, Jakob Kuisl, who is asked to draw a confession from the town’s midwife, who is accused of being a witch and murdering a young boy, whether she’s innocent or not. He must illegally torture her for an expedited execution and guilty verdict that the village council desires. However, Kuisl’s strong belief of her innocence and personal qualms with torturing an upstanding member of the community lead to a race to uncover the truth of the boy’s murder and the answer to the existence of witches in Shongau before the town’s patron returns to decide the case.

Jakob, with the help of his daughter, Magdalena, and Simon, the physician’s son, disregard their reputations and question the riotous members of the town in search for any clues that might shed light on the case. But their task become more and more complicated as fear and panic grip the city and more children with ominous tattoos turn up dead around town.

The Hangman’s Daughter was an extremely interesting historical fiction/murder mystery set in a period of prejudice and fear. It’s amazing that the story is set in a time that would have been considered the Baroque Era (Era of Elegance) because it seemed more like it was the Dark Ages as the imagery of muck and filth the people of Shongau seemed to live in didn’t seem very elevated. Also, the fact that such hysteria could be caused by the thought that a “witch” might be practicing and corrupting the children of the town was unbelievable. Growing up you hear stories of the Salem Witch Trials, but this book put that tragic bit of history into perspective. The shear ridiculousness of the accusations and the way people viewed the carrying of a plant or a birthmark to be the sign of the devil is insane, but I guess that is really how people thought. It was a time where medicine was still primitive and people were afraid of anything that could be considered against the church. Many times I found myself baffled by the people’s close-mindedness and their inability to accept something that had an easily found scientific explanation. It made me glad that I didn’t live in the 1600’s.

But apart from the unique historical setting and glimpse into the “witch trial era,” I found the learning of what an executioner did to be absolutely fascinating. I had no idea that they did so many things outside of just killing people. To make it more interesting, the fact that Jakob Kuisl turns out to be an ancestor of the author is really neat.

On the novel itself, I have to give Lee Chadeayne credit for he did a wonderful job at translating the German into English. It still had the Germanic slant to the language, while still being very easy to read and consume as a native English speaker. I found the pacing to be quite good, a nice blend of historical explanation, plot development and character development. In fact, I thought that the characters of Jakob, Madeline, and Simon were extremely robust and well-penned. However, at times I did find that the language became a bit wordy and I wanted to get on with the story.

I really hope that the success of the first book will push AmazonCrossing to translate the second and third books in the series so I can see what happens to The Hangman’s Daughter.

Rating: A

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