German author/radio personality/screenwriter Oliver Potzsch has written an intriguing historical thriller, capturing seventeenth-century Bavaria. Potzsch is also a descendant of the well-known line of Bavarian executioners, the Kuisls, in this book. The Hangman’s Daughter, an international bestseller, was translated into English by Lee Chadeayne, a former classical musician, a college professor, and a charter member of the American Literary Translators Association. A few of his translated words, unfortunately, were too modern for the time period (i.e., kids and okay). However, since the author must have approved the translation, readers need to overlook the terms that do not click with the times. The title also gave me pause, because Magdalena Kuisl was not around whom this novel revolved. All in all, though, The Hangman’s Daughter, was an easier read than The Harper’s Quine (cyranette.harpers-quine).
Set in the 1659 town of Schongau, a young boy is murdered and found with an odd symbol on his back. Immediately, witchcraft is suspected and Martha Stecklin, midwife and herbologist, is taken to the dungeon as a measure to calm down the town’s uneasy residents, despite the facts that she has brought many of their children into the world and healed their illnesses and injuries. Jakob Kuisl, an ex-soldier and the local hangman, is also a proponent of herbal medicines, has quite a library of forward thinking books, and believes Martha to be innocent. However, he is duty-bound to torture her for a confession, which won’t be forthcoming. He vows to find the killer, hopefully before he has to hurt her, and to be as humane as possible if he must subject her to the terrible tools he is expected to use. There are only a few days to accomplish his quest, but he is not completely successful.
While Martha is imprisoned, two other boys are killed, two girls go missing, the merchants’ warehouse is burned down, and the construction of the leper’s house is wrecked. However, these events do not prove her innocence. In fact, this only assures people that she is in cahoots with the devil, who has been seen around town and in the woods doing her bidding.
Jakob and only a few others do not believe this nonsense, but the townspeople are getting quite worked up. Though several in authority fear a return to the horrible witch burnings of seventy years earlier, some do not see how they can be prevented if the real killer is not found. Jakob, his daughter, and a young physician, Simon, do their best to ferret out clues and information.
The dead boys and two missing girls are orphans, whom various families have taken in; however, they have been ostracised by the other children and spent most of their time together in the woods, as well as frequenting Martha’s cottage, where they were treated warmly. After all the bad things that have happened, suspicions and rumors abound that the midwife put the tattoos on the children and turned them onto witchcraft.
What Jakob, Magdalena, and Simon discover is that the children have seen and heard something while hiding, which turns out to be about a missing treasure and mercenaries. At the root of the murders and vandalism is greed and human evil not witchcraft. They also find and save the two girls hiding in secret underground passageways of an old well. Martha is vindicated and released, although not without having undergone some gruesome abuse, part of which had been eased with a potion Jakob gave her.
Besides superstitions, 17th century Schongau still adheres to certain codes of honor and class. For example, although Jakob is an executioner like his forebearers, he and his family are shunned. The people may come to watch the beheadings and hangings, but they turn away from him when he walks through town. Magdalena must marry a hangman from another town and not someone in Schongau, certainly not a respectable merchant or doctor.
However, times are changing, and not just for the Kuisl family or Martha. New thinking is occurring; the old ways are being discarded, albeit slowly, as Schongau grows and prospers. Simon is a modern doctor, who has learned more from Jakob’s books and herbal tonics than from his archaic medical school and blood-letting father. Magdalena, the hangman’s daughter, is defiantly refusing an arranged marriage without love. Coffee has been introduced and found to be quite stimulating.