The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, 448 pages, AmazonCrossing (December 7, 2010)
Oliver Pötzsch’s historical thriller is set in 17th century Schongau, a small town in Bavaria. This is a place where chamber pots are emptied into the streets, coffee is not served in inns like in Paris, and streets are not lighted. This not Istanbul or Amsterdam where there are layers of history, but a town which has parochial politics and social issues.
The novel starts with the murder of an orphan boy who has a mysterious tattoo. Soon other orphans are killed and this gets the attention of the hangman Jakob Kuisl who decides to investigate. An expert of not just torture and murder, Kuisl knows medicines very well too. The matter gets urgency when the town’s midwife — the one who bought Kuisl’s children into the world — is accused of witchcraft and murder and has to be interrogated. Before a pre-ordained justice is inflicted on Martha, Kuisl has to find the real culprit with his homespun skills.
As Jakob Kuisl navigates through the clues, many strange events happen: a man known as the ‘Devil’, is spotted by a few people in suspicious circumstances; a storage facility is burned; the building site for a leper colony is vandalized. Before the arrival of Count Sandizell, the Elector’s secretary, the mastermind has to be found, else many women in the town could be burned as witches.
After the initial brouhaha, events move at the pace of a Roman Polanski movie, but right after the midpoint, it moves as fast as a Nicholas Cage-Jerry Bruchkeimer movie. The segments are short, the action is quick. Also as the investigation proceeds, we get an idea of the social structure of 17th century Bavaria. The Thirty Year War was over and people had returned to their small town with haunting memories and broken limbs. Witchcraft was feared, so was the hangman. Law and order is maintained by the stentorian town clerk, ruling as a proxy for the Count. He is assisted by a council, a few moneybags who got their position by virtue of birth. Various guilds practiced trade; trade routes and their safety were important. The book provides just enough information about the period, though a bit more on the local traditions and daily rituals would have made it richer.
Among the characters, the hangman, due to his profession is quite interesting. Unlike Jason Goodwin’s eunuch detective Yashim, who has admirable social skills, Kuisl is feared by the town. He is strong, being an ex-army man, and is able to challenge the villains physically. At the same time, he is doting father of gentle heart who hates to see a innocent burned on the stake.Though Kuisl is the main character, there are scenes written from the POV of other characters like the town clerk and the young doctor Simon Fronwieser who makes some major discoveries. Some scenes are written from the point of view of Magdalena, the hangman’s daughter, but she plays only a minor part in the proceedings. But compared to Kuisl, other characters are not multi-dimensional.
The book is a good read and it would have been better if it was shorter.