I learned about The Hangman’s Daughter from a friend who had read it in German and told me, if it was ever translated into English, to jump on it. I got it the minute it was released. The translation, done by Lee Chadeayne, was flawless in terms of readability. Since reading this novel, I’ve recommended it to all of my friends because it is extraordinary on so many levels. Now I’m sharing it with you just in time for the paperback release.
The author, Oliver Potzsch, has the distinction of being descended from the Kuisls, one of the leading dynasties of executioners in Bavaria. Being an executioner was considered a quite noble profession and, as the novel illustrates, extended well beyond simply executing criminals. Potzsch researched his family’s extensive historical archive of documents as well as public archives in preparing to write The Hangman’s Daughter and that depth of research really brings this novel to life.
The Hangman’s Daughter combines several threads, too many to be addressed in this review. It’s a portrait of life in the 1600’s, it’s a murder mystery, it contains several conspiracies, it’s mystical, and there is romance. Quite a complex novel, and it all works together seamlessly.
The mid-1600’s were not a good time for women anywhere, particularly women who were considered wise women or healers, and that included women in Bavaria. The German rulers there were intent on ferreting out, trying and executing witches. Wise women made convenient scapegoats for all kinds of purposes because the public didn’t understand how they did what they did, and what people don’t understand they often fear on some level.
Johannes Kuisl was the village hangman and executioner for the town of Schongau in Bavaria in 1624, as his father-in-law had been before him and for generations back in time. Johannes’ son Jakob swore he would not follow in his father’s footsteps because he had seen what it cost his father and his whole family. Thirty five years later, however, we find that Jakob has become Schongau’s hangman after returning from the Great War.
Jakob, his wife, and his daughter, Magdalena, are natural healers to whom the townspeople come for herbal remedies to improve their health. Jacob also serves as a mediator in townspeople’s arguments. He’s a kind hearted man and does his best to help them. Magdalena is proud to be the daughter of such a man.
When the novel opens, this small village has been going through a fairly quiet, peaceful time. The worst thing happening at the moment is a dispute between local workers and drivers from a village upstream. Schongau has had a monopoly that is causing some dispute but everyone thinks it can be settled fairly easily. It appears Magdalena, who is in her teens, has never known the village to be anything other than peaceful and bucolic.
But all of that is about to end. There are overt and covert forces at work that will test the village and its normally friendly people, including its hangman. Jakob is known for being a very fair and just man, and everyone respects him. The local alderman, Johann Lechner, doesn’t like midwives so when a frivolous and unfounded complaint is lodged against Martha Stechlin, the town’s first official midwife, Lechner decides to railroad her. He’s looking for a scapegoat and a witch burning would serve his purpose well.
“These [healer/midwife] women had always been suspect to men. They knew potions and herbs; they touched women in indecent spots; and they knew how to get rid of the fruit of the womb, that gift of God. Many women had been burned as witches by men. Jakob Kuisl, too, knew all about potions and was suspected of sorcery. But he was a man. And he was the executioner.”
As you can see from the quote, Jakob walked a very fine line. He had to arrest Martha, who he knew had saved the lives of countless women and their babies, but he vowed to himself that he would protect her as much as he could and make anything he was forced to do as painless as possible for her. He also feared for his own family of healers because one witch burning usually led to a wave of them, as if burning women would solve a town’s problems.
“’You’ll see! Once the Stechlin woman has been burned, the fun will start for real. And then one more will burn, and one more, and one more! And finally, it’ll be your turn.’” Simon, the town physician’s son to his father.
This novel is an excellent portrait of a small town in the mid-1600’s, when superstition and fears of magic were strong. A lot of what we now call science and medicine were considered magic and suspected by many of being devil worship, especially if it suited someone’s need to grasp for power or to divert attention from real issues.
As I’ve said, several threads twist and turn throughout The Hangman’s Daughter, including its excellent murder mystery. I’ve really just scratched the surface of this complex novel in my review. It is beautifully written. The characters, likeable and not, are richly drawn and fully fleshed out. There is political intrigue, a mystery, adventure and lots of suspense as well as a bit of romance. This complex novel makes for an amazing read. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction or a good murder mystery!
To buy The Hangman’s Daughter, click on the online bookseller of your choice in the upper right column.
If you’ve read The Hangman’s Daughter, or anything else written by Oliver Potzsch or Lee Chadeayne, we’d love to get your comments. We’d also love to hear your comments about this review.
If you like this review, please +1 it and/or share it with your friends!