Review By KEN KORCZAK
THE HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER is an English translation of a German novel that achieved best seller status in Europe and began doing well in the U.S. market after being offered as a Kindle selection on Amazon.com. The translation is well-handled by LEE CHADEAYNE, a member of the American Literary Translators Association. Its original title is Die Henkerstochter.
Author OLIVER PÖTZSCH creates a vibrant fictional world set in 1659 Bavaria. The action takes place in the tiny village of Schongau, which is a real location in Germany near the Alps and the Lech River. In fact, Pötzsch was inspired to write this novel after an intensive study of his family’s genealogy, which led him to discover that he is actually descended from a long line of professional executioners, or hangmen.
The title is something of a misnomer because the hangman’s daughter herself plays only a supporting role. The hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is our main protagonist, and he’s a wonderful character indeed – that’s because he is complicated mixture of stunning contradictions. When ordered to, he will hack off the head a convicted man, no matter how flimsy the evidence, or torture women before he burns them at the stake based on ridiculously trumped-up charges of witchcraft.
On the other hand, Kuisl is highly intelligent and in his chest beats the heart of a humanitarian. He is smarter than just about everybody else in town, and he’s even a far superior healer and physician than the two local “quacks.” In short, he is a Hangman with a Heart. (Hey, maybe that would be a better title)?
Anyway, the plot centers on an accusation of witchcraft against a kindly midwife – who just so happened to have delivered the Hangman’s kids – and who is also known for her kindness toward orphaned children. The charges are prompted by the brutal murders of several local children, whose lifeless bodies are discovered to have “witch signs” tattooed on their backs.
The plot quickly thickens, however, as the Hangman suspects the midwife is innocent, is certainly no witch, and he begins snooping around for the truth. With the aid of a young doctor, Simon Fronwieser, the pair proceed like a post-Medieval version of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. They began to uncover a tangled conspiracy that reaches to the very center of the Schongau’s wealthy burgomaster and aldermen elites.
For me the novel works on almost every level. Superior character creation, good enough plotting, excellent description of scene, setting and background – although I will say there are stretches of tedium with too much detail inserted as the author does his best to keep us turning pages while dangling mysteries just in front of our noses, but always out of reach – until the end. There was a tad too much of this unnecessary teasing for my likes, but others might disagree.
The sensitive reader should be warned that there’s plenty of violence and bloodshed, gruesome scenes of torture and killings – including the violent deaths of sweet children – and other descriptions of sundry bloody human processes – not to mention and unflinching look at the all of the basic feces, urine and filth (human and animal) that the people of this time period lived in close proximity to before the advent of modern plumbing and sewer systems.
The Hangman’s Daughter is ultimately entertaining, loaded with dark humor, and the author has a natural sense of irony, which is generated by showing us the stark differences is the societal norms of 1649 Germany as compared to what we think of as rational and sensible today.
Looking back from the vantage point of our lofty perch of 2012, the people of the mid-17th Century seem a bunch of hopelessly violent, greedy, superstitious lunatics – but we have to remember – their world was “normal” and “rational” from their point of view. Before we judge them too harshly, imagine what the people of 400 years into our future will think of our “rational” society of today.
Ken Korczak is the author of: THE FAIRY REDEMPTION OF JUBAL CRANCH