The Hangman's Daughter

Sunday, January 12, 2014

A witch trial, torture, murdered children, the devil, and buried treasure...doesn't exactly sound like a pleasant way to spend the afternoon, does it?  But when these elements come together in Oliver Potzch's novel The
Hangman's Daughter, that's exactly what you get.  The main character is Jakob Kuisl, the executioner for a small town in Germany in the 1600s.  As executioner, it is also his job to torture suspects to gain confessions that could be used by the powers that be to justify the executions they ordered.  In this story, the accused is a midwife who is charged with witchcraft.  A young boy has been murdered, and he appears to have a symbol of witchcraft tattooed on his shoulder.  The woman is captured by a mob, and taken to the hangman to be questioned.  He does not believe in her guilt, however, and does whatever he can to put off the torture and eventual burning at the stake that inevitably follows such an accusation.  He works with the son of the town doctor, Simon, and grudgingly with his oldest daughter, Magdalena, to find the real killer and save the woman from a gruesome fate.

The main character's profession is only one thing that makes this book different from other historical mysteries I've read.  It is set in Germany during the middle ages, and there is sufficient detail about the daily life of the average person of that time that I can only assume the context is well-researched.  It highlights much of the backward thinking of the day, from the existence of witchcraft itself, to the severe class distinctions, to the political structure of small towns of the era, to the completely unscientific practice of "medicine" during that period in history.  This in itself makes for interesting reading.

But there is more than just a well-researched setting.  The mystery itself is sufficiently developed that I was kept guessing until pretty much the end of the story.  Potzch finds a good balance between exposition and action, and while the description of the torture inflicted on this poor woman is detailed enough to make you squirm, it is not gratuitous, and definitely does not glamorize it at all.  In fact, one of the things that I loved about the character of Jakob Kuisl is how conflicted he is about his profession.  It was never something he wanted to do, but the rigidly enforced class structure meant that he had very few options-his father and his father's father were executioners, therefore he must be as well.  But being a principled man, he wants to ensure that his torture does not lead to the death of anyone who is not well and truly guilty.  He is also in intellectual, which is what draws the physician's son, Simon, into his orbit.  It is socially unacceptable to be friends with the hangman, but Jakob has books that a scholar like Simon can only dream of, and together their combination of intellect and experience make them a very effective, if very unorthodox,  detective team.  This book is the first in a series, and I look forward to spending more time in 17th century Germany uncovering the truth about murder and mayhem.

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