The Hangman’s Daughter–Oliver Pötzsch (Kindle)

Image

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

The Last Queen of England–Steve Robinson

Image

I love great books, but I also love those books that I can wolf down and enjoy for all of their naughty empty calories, like a bag of Cheetos or potato chips.  This is one of those salty snack books.

If you’re a Dan Brown fan, like I am, this book is fantastic.  If you’re looking for something innovative, maybe not.  Jefferson Tayte is an American genealogist in London for a conference and to see his friend, Marcus, a big-whig genealogist recently retired from the National Archives.  Tayte does not wear tweed, but tan, suits.  Marcus introduces him to Jean Summer, an attractive divorced historian specializing in the British royalty at the dinner that precedes Marcus’ murder and sets the plot in motion.  What was Marcus working on about which he was so secretive at dinner and how was it connected to his being gunned down outside the restaurant?  Got the formula?

The puzzle concerns the British family’s royal tree, particularly at the time that the dynasty changed from the Stuarts to the Protestant, but distantly related, Hanovers after Queen Anne’s death in the seventeenth century.  Whatever Marcus had discovered seems to have caused his death, as well as the death of several others across the city, and the dead bodies start piling up as Tayte and Summer, assisted by the faithful loner DI, Fable, suss out the details.

In solid Dan Brown style, the duo traverse London and end up in familiar London sites as well as some less familiar.  They discuss construction and re-construction dates and decode some ahnentafel, binary numbers that stand for places on a genealogical table.   Because Tayte is a silly American, he requires history 101 lectures from Summer, who can then educate the reader on the Stuarts and Hanovers and the Jacobite rebellions of the seventeenth century.  What she does not supply, some students of hers do, and this was the one cringe-worthy portion of the novel, where history geeks are presented as rebels for challenging the text books.  That is what all good historians do, especially graduate students in history trying to carve their niche in the dialogue of interpretations that is history.  No historian believes history is a set of facts to be memorized and canonized  in anonymously handed down textbooks.  Historians write those books.

That small irritation aside, the novel was a fun read in terms of pacing, likable protagonists, and fun travelogue descriptions.  Jackson has a series of Jefferson Tayte novels that are probably worth a look if you enjoy this type of novel.

Finished 8/30/15