The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch
(translated by Lee Chadeayne)
Genre: Historical fiction, mystery
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Summary: 1659 – Schongau, a small town in the Bavarian region of Germany, is rocked to its core by a heinous crime. A small boy is pulled out of the river, severely beaten and with a strange marking on his shoulder. After he dies, the townsfolk cry witchcraft and immediately blame the midwife, Martha Stechlin, for killing the boy. The townspeople form an angry mob and attempt to extract justice, vigilante style. However, the town’s hangman Jakob Kuisl puts a stop to it, insisting on a fair trial.
Kuisl believes Martha is innocent, but using logic in a time of superstition is highly suspect. Fears mount, especially as more children disappear and people whisper reports that The Devil himself walks the streets of Schongau. The young physician Simon Fronweiser and Kuisl’s daughter Magdalena are the only two willing to help the hangman find the truth behind the terrible events befalling the town. But will the truth come too late?
Not gonna lie – the cover is what attracted me to this book. The fancy font against the matte black, and the slippered feet hanging ominously over the title. It just looked cool. So I was pleasantly surprised when judging the appearance of something turned into an excellent reading experience. In your face, proverbs!
Anyway, after that last crapshoot, it was so refreshing to read a well constructed mystery. There are many different elements to the plot, and the historical context is really interesting. The town of Schongau lies on a river, and has a monopoly on the transportation of goods downstream. A larger city upriver does not like this set-up, and are always trying to start shit. Then there are the old patricians that run the city, who cling desperately to their power and wealth even as the town threatens to self-destruct. Another good counterpoint to Kuisl is the powerful clerk who wants to avoid a large scale witchhunt by forcing Martha to confess. One innocent life to save the lives of many. Having many different characters with different motives could easily get confusing and bloated, but Pötzsch weaves everything together into a believable and dynamic plot.
The author, Oliver Pötzsch, is an actual descendant of the Kuisls, a real family of hangmen in Germany. Learning about the many different jobs the hangman was responsible for was pretty amazing. They tortured people during hearings, acted as doctors for the poorer townspeople, cleaned the garbage from the streets, and (of course) performed all public executions. And Jakob Kuisl also acts as our detective in this mystery. But he just uses logical thinking it the face of hysteria. Which made me happy, because I dislike superstitious bullshit. (He actually reminds me a bit of Sokka, without the extreme goofiness.) I also enjoyed the way his character is morally challenged by performing executions. He can empathize with people who are about to be executed, but he feels it is a just punishment. But it doesn’t make killing people any easier. As he knows Martha is innocent, he is willing to fight for her life and tries to make her brutal time in prison less painful.
Translated texts really interest me, because each language is so different. With all the connotations and varied meanings a word has, it must be an extremely difficult job to get the feel of the sentence right. Because even if you directly translated something, it may not have the same impact in another language. Like poetry – I rarely bother with reading translated poetry because it just reminds me I will never be able to appreciate the original language. Pablo Neruda poems make me want to be fluent in Spanish. English majory laments and digressions aside, I think some of the words were lost in translation in this novel.
For example: Hard-on. This word was used once or twice in the novel, but it stood out (oh shit, I just made an erection joke!) in the text. Now maybe it is time-period appropriate, and quite honestly I was too lazy to pursue the etymology of hard-on, but it didn’t fit with the feel of the sentence. Though maybe I’ll do it at work, and write it down as a reference question. Another thing – Jakob and Simon are constantly drinking beer, but it was always described as “weak beer.” Maybe there is a word for that in German, but I lost count of the number of glasses the men consumed. This is Germany – why were they drinking weak beer?? Besides a few nitpicky things, I thought the translation was pretty excellent as it retained the nuances of different character points of view.
One thing that did bother me was the hangman’s daughter herself, Magdalena. For being the title character, she didn’t get to be the narrator that often. Which is a pity, because her voice was refreshing among all the political scheming and problems of the other characters. Oh. Also. There is a romance going on between Magdalena and Simon, but it didn’t really interest me that much. As for Simon, he was my least favorite of the three main characters. Perhaps that’s why the romance aspect didn’t strike me as necessary.
– Really interesting time period and concept
– Varied characters and motives keeps things interesting
– The romance wasn’t really necessary
– The resolution is a tad bit weak
The Hangman’s Daughter is a well written novel that will keep you guessing until the last chapter. The many facets of life in 17th century Germany make this mystery a substantial read (it’s also pretty cool that Pötzsch is a descendant of the the real Kuisl!). Perhaps the scariest part of this book is how recognizable the witchhunt is. Mob mentality is alive and kicking today, and people will always take advantage of that in order to push their own agendas through. Logic and questioning the motives of those in power can be dangerous in times of stupidity and fear. But sometimes the truth is more important than the safety and comfort of our current lives.