Archive for February 17th, 2011

The Hangman’s Daughter

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

By Oliver Potzsch

The Short Take:

This fascinating historical novel is drawn from the family history of the author — whose forefathers were once prominent executioners (!) in Bavaria. Set in 1659, it’s a complex mystery involving witchcraft, town rivalries, murdered children, and forbidden love. Sounds good to me!


The town executioner of Schongau also conducts torture to secure convictions and picks up the garbage once a week. Not surprisingly, he and his family are largely shunned by the local citizens. Quite surprisingly, he has a vast store of herbal and medical knowledge and is not above using it to protect those in need. This is one executioner who doesn’t mind giving justice a little nudge in the right direction.

However, I’m not sure I get the book’s title: the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena, doesn’t play that big of a role. Plus, the physician she loves (and who loves her) seems to have an awful lot of unexplained money for fancy clothes. Is it possible the editors decided to eliminate parts of the plot in this translation? One wonders. I do like that the translator preserved the Bavarian feel of the story without getting you mired in too many Germanic terms.

The hangman himself, Jakob Kuisi, is a terrific character and a fitting tent pole for this book. You will stand solidly in his corner from cover to cover. His sort-of-sidekick, Simon, the physician his daughter loves, comes across as rather weak and self-absorbed by comparison. I don’t see what Magdalena sees in him. But don’t we say that about so many relationships?

All in all it’s a highly enjoyable historical mystery/thriller and I bet we’ll be hearing a lot about it in the future. After all, someone had to be paying attention to the success of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

A Little Plot:

A young boy is savagely murdered and a strange mark is found on his back. Immediately everyone thinks witchcraft and, of course, the town midwife is the number one (and only) suspect. Hangman Jakob believes she is innocent and strives to find the real culprit while delaying her scheduled torture as much as possible. But when more children disappear and a strange fire burns down a warehouse, he’s hard pressed to delay much longer. The town council burghers want that witch executed as soon as possible: the last time there was a delay in executing a witch, 60+ other women were also accused and burned. That is a scandal the town does not want to see repeated.

And who can blame them?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a website for the author or this book — at least any sites in English — but there are a number of other reviews out there.


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