This was a strange book, but not in a bad way. Described as an historical thriller that’s set in Germany during the late 1600s, it tells the story of the hangman in the town of Schongau, Jakob Kuisl’s, efforts to exonerate a midwife accused of witchcraft and the murder of three orphan children and other sundry crimes. Uniting with the town’s young doctor, Simon, Jakob finds himself in a race against time to prove the midwife’s innocence before he’s forced to first torture her then put her to death. With the town’s Burgers refusing to listen to reason and wilfully ignoring the dreadful witch purge of decades earlier, and with the villains one step ahead, Jakob needs all his formidable abilities to catch the real perpetrators.
Graphic in the way it discusses the torture process and careful to evoke the period in which its set in terms of sights, sounds and smells, the narrative moves fairly swiftly in the initial stages before stalling a little in the middle and racing to the end. Though an easy and quite enjoyable read, there were elements I struggled with in the book.
Despite being titled The Hangmans’ Daughter, the daughter, Magdalena Kuisl, a feisty, smart and very beautiful young woman, is little more than a secondary character. The story very much belongs to her father, Jakob, a man with conscience and a heart who takes his job (and the requisite drink he must down before being called to execute or torture) very seriously. As if to atone for the death he delivers, Jakob is also a self-educated healer of extraordinary talent and experience. The reasons for this are made clear in the prologue which provides a context for the rather schizoid personality Jakob occasionally exhibits, whether its as a righteous father warning an amorous suitor (usually, the town’s young doctor) away from his daughter, or whispering words of compassion to an intended victim. A big man, Jakob engenders fear and grudging respect from those he encounters, even while his occupation assures he and his family will always remain outcasts.
So, while I did enjoy the story, I didn’t love it. I found it became bogged down with chases here and there and dead ends and felt padded at times. The villains were also two-dimensional and oddly portrayed. There were moments when they were mysterious and elusive, at others, they stepped from the shadows and behaved with all the skill of a keystone cop. The main villain was also never fleshed out (and pardon the pun there – which will become clear if you read it). He started off being quite scary but, by the end, was more tiresome and contradictory. Likewise with the character known as “moneybags”. Maybe it’s the translation, but when he’s revealed, there are inaccuracies in his portrayal that jarred. Ultimately, because of this and other parts of the action (which occur, rather conveniently, off-stage) the climax is turned into a bit of an anti-climax.
I also found the use of modern idiom difficult to believe. At first, it gave rather a fresh flavour to the book, brought the Middle Ages into a more contemporary setting. When I encountered metaphors like “bun in the oven” to refer to a pregnancy and increasingly more contemporary patois, I found it took away from the rather excellent scene-setting and period evocation that Pötzsch does so well.
There was also a tendency to place contemporary mores and thoughts in the minds of those who, anyone with a slight grasp of the era knows, were unlikely to exist. For example, some of the young doctor’s and hangman’s dismissal of certain medical practices in favour of what we know work now didn’t ring true. An amount of scepticism might have been accounted for, but the hangman particularly looked upon the studies of the doctors of his era with utter disdain and disregard. Admittedly, Pötzsch was able to provide the names of books and philosophers that the hangman preferred, but even so, his skills smacked more of twenty-first century hindsight than they did knowledge gained through wartime experience or seventeenth century reading.
Overall, however, the novel was a good diversion, a romp through Bavaria in the 1600s with an element of mystery and lots of gore. What I enjoyed most about it was learning that Pötzsch was inspired by his own family history – it turns out he’s a descendant of a lineage of executioners – the Kuisl’s and Jakob and his daughter were real people. To turn an element of his own past into such a interesting adventure (and there are more books in the series) shows writing and imaginative flair indeed.