Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Hangman's Daughter - Oliver Pötzsch

Summary:  Germany, 1660: When a dying boy is pulled from the river with a mark crudely tattooed on his shoulder, hangman Jakob Kuisl is called upon to investigate whether witchcraft is at play. So begins The Hangman's Daughter--the chillingly detailed, fast-paced historical thriller from German television screenwriter, Oliver Pötzsch—a descendent of the Kuisls, a famous Bavarian executioner clan.

My Review:  Set in a small Bavarian village in 1660—a setting not common in many historical fiction novels—Jacob Kuisl is the local hangman. It’s a job that every medieval European village needs, yet Jacob is a pariah, forced to live outside town and viewed as a demon by the god-fearing villagers. Yet this reputation couldn’t be more contrasting to Jacob’s compassionate, altruistic nature.

When the corpse of a young boy with a tattoo on his shoulder–a sure sign of witchcraft—is pulled from the river, the town leaders instantly blame the midwife. They charge Jacob with the task of torturing a confession out of the midwife so they can legally execute her before the town turns into a frenzy of witchcraft accusations.

However, Jacob is absolutely convinced that he midwife is innocent. As more children turn up mysteriously marked and dead, Jacob and Simon—the doctor’s son who seems to be the only townsperson to recognize and respect Jacob’s wisdom and understanding of anatomy and medicine—must work together to find the true murderer, prevent more children from dying, and save the life of the innocent midwife.

Oh, and there’s a minor plot about how Jacob’s beautiful and spirited daughter Magdalena is an outcast because of her father’s profession but Simon falls in love with her anyway. It's a very minor plot line considering the title of the book.

As a historical fiction fan, I found this book very fascinating. The setting and setup seemed very unique—a heroic hangman in 17th century Bavaria. The plot was well-paced and read like a modern murder mystery. There was little characterization and character development and the prose was choppy and sometimes seemed juvenile—something that could be attributed to poor translation from the native German—but the compelling story and fascinating premise made this a swift read despite those flaws.

My Rating: 3.5 Stars

For the sensitive reader: Descriptions of executions and torture, though not graphic, shouldn’t take you by surprise considering the plot and source of the book.

Sum it Up: A compassionate hangman in 17th century Bavaria must solve the mystery of several murdered children to save the life the wrongly accused midwife. 

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