The Hangman’s Daughter–Oliver Pötzsch (Kindle)

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I read a review of this book several years ago and it’s been on that subtext list of books that I want to read some day.  When my husband bought me a Kindle for Christmas and this book was on their Deals page, I thought it was time to move it up on the list.  That decision proved to be a great one.

The Hangman’s Daughter is based on the hangman ancestors of the author, the Kuisl family from Bavaria.  Seventeenth-century hangmen not only were executioners, but torturers, and this adds further spice to the drama, which opens with young Jakob Kuisl trying to wake his drunk father for what becomes the botched execution of a young woman accused of murdering her newborn.  Jakob’s role in this tragedy causes him to swear he will not follow in the family trade.  That’s the prologue.  Open chapter one and Jakob is the town of Schöngau’s hangman with a prosperous home and family.  He is widely read, owns more books than the town “doctor” and is a famed herbalist and healer.  The son of the town “doctor,” Simon, is a dandy with an incomplete university education and a yearning for something more, some of which might be Kuisl’s daughter, Magdalena.  Enter the social problem.  Hangmen families are thought to be unlucky, tainted by the death and pain they are commissioned to bring into the world, and so generally relegated to intermarriage with other hangmen families.  Magdalena is also unusual in knowing how to read and having been taught by her father during an extended childhood illness.  

The mystery enters when a young boy is found in the river with multiple stab wounds and, upon closer examination, what seems to be a witch’s mark on his shoulder.  The murder of other children, also with these marks, heightens the town’s certainty that the town midwife is guilty of witchcraft.  

The actual mystery itself, however, is incidental to Pötzsch’s story.  What matters are the characters and the social web Pötzsch creates as they work to resolve the mystery of the children’s deaths and save the midwife from death at the stake.  The hangman’s moral complexity is beautifully drawn as he must torture the same woman he works to save and as he partners with the young man who is making his daughter the subject of town gossip.

Too often authors of historical mysteries set in the premodern world draw that world as cartoonish, superstitious and clearly irrational.  While irrationality plays a role in a story of witchcraft persecution, Pötzsch respects the time in which he has set his story, perhaps in part because it is the time of people who, for him and his son, whose room is adorned with their images and writings, are real.

Hangman’s Daughter was a holiday treat with no calories and I am looking forward to the second in the series, which I have already downloaded onto my Kindle.

Finished 1/7/14

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