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The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

Updated on August 28, 2012

This review of The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch with translation by Lee Chadeayne (Kindle eBook Dec 2010) is divided into two parts – the good and the bad.

First the good, Pötzsch did his homework.  His attention to detail regarding 17th century German life transports the reader to that time with all its grittiness, smells, and rationales.  Pötzsch tells the story of Jacob Kuisl of the real-life executioner Kuisls, a lineage of which Pötzsch is a direct descendent.  Jacob, following in the footsteps of his fathers, is the executioner of Schongau, a small rural town in Bavaria.  As Executioner, it is his duty to torture suspects until they confess their crimes and exact punishment up to and including death.  This duty makes him such a feared man that the other townspeople say a prayer whenever they come in contact with him on the street.  In private, however, these same townspeople visit his home in search of elixirs and balms to cure everything from rashes to sexual dysfunction.  In addition to being Executioner, Jacob, a progressive thinker, is also an amateur chemist and developer of medicines.

Jacob’s life changes when Martha Stechlin – a midwife who delivered many of the town’s children including his own, is accused of being a witch and charged with the brutal murder of young boy.  Jacob is certain of the midwife’s innocence and vows to exonerate her of the charges.  Standing in his way is the town’s fever-pitch fear after two other children are found murdered and one goes missing.  Add to that numerous sightings of an imposing figure the townspeople believe to be the Devil himself and you have a town gripped in paranoia.  The court clerk, Johann Lechner, and the men of the town council play upon the townspeople’s fears by insisting the only way to rid the town of this misery is to burn the witch at the stake.  Jacob enlists the help of Simon Fronweiser, the equally progressive thinking town physician’s son and his own daughter Magdalena to investigate the evidence and unravel the mystery to ensure justice prevails.  In the end, however, it is Jacob who must fight the Devil to save not only the midwife but also himself.

Now, the bad, this novel is categorized as a mystery, but there really isn’t any mystery to it.   I was able to identify the true villain within the first chapters.  I kept waiting for the twist in the plot that would cast some doubt but it never came.  The pace is slow at times, the ending is a little too tidy and there is the puzzle of the title as Magdalena, the daughter in The Hangman’s Daughter, is not a prominent character in the novel.  She is Fronweiser’s love interest, but does not make much of a presence until the last few chapters.  Until then, she breezes in and out like fly on a hot summer’s day.  After reading the postscript, however, one gets the impression it was not Pötszch’s intention to write a great mystery but rather to provide an account of his family’s lineage albeit fictional. 

Those who appreciate a good storyline will be satisfied with Pötzsch’s character interactions and the “howdunit” rather than the whodunit.  This is a very entertaining historical novel.  While I can’t highly recommend this novel because it doesn't live up to its mystery label, I do recommend it because it is a good story with incredible social detail.  Unfortunately, the storyline and social detail suffer due to the lack in plot development.  I give The Hangman’s Daughter four stars out of a five star rating system.

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