Set in the town of Schongau, Bavaria in the spring of 1659, The Hangman’s Daughter tells the tale of a murder mystery. I’m not sure if the title of the book is the same as the original German because the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena Kuisl, is a minor character. [Ed note: It is the same. The original German title is die Henkerstochter] The story centers around the hangman himself, Jakob Kuisl, and the son of the town physician, Simon Fronwieser. These two team up to solve the mystery of who has been murdering some of the local orphan children.
The duo are under pressure of time. Almost immediately after the discovery of the first body, the local midwife is accused of being a witch and the murderer. Kuisl and Fronwieser are convinced of her innocence and proceed to go against the wishes of the town’s burgomasters and attempt to find out the truth.
Other mysteries crop up throughout the course of the investigation making it more difficult for them to solve the murders.
Personally, I found the story to be a bit transparent and was able to figure out the solution well before the end. What makes this book stand out is the detail and how it even came to be.
Pötzsch does a wonderful job with immersing the reader in the day-to-day life of a 17th century German town. He is generous with detail making it very easy for a reader to “see” what he describes.
The most interesting thing for me was learning what a local executioner’s job really was. The hangman was not only responsible for carrying out death sentences, but he also had the unpleasant job of being the local torturer. A deep understanding of medicine was required. Many hangmen knew more about the human body than trained doctors. As such, a hangman also earned side money dispensing herbal remedies for headaches and contraception, healed the sick and mended injuries. A knowledgeable hangman was a busy man, but he was also shunned because of his main job and frequently had to live outside the town walls.
Pötzsch was very close to this book. The author is in fact descended from the hangmen of Schongau. There are many Kuisl’s in his family tree. He was lucky in that a relative of his, Fritz Kuisl, kept extensive genealogical and historical information – enough for Pötzsch to paint an accurate picture for his book.
A short review, I know. I do recommend this novel (for novel it is – Jakob Kuisl and his family are fictional even if the details are not) for those interested in either mysteries or historical books. I rated it 4 out of 5 stars at Goodreads for the details alone.
For my next book, I’m staying in the 17th century with The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco. This book has been on my shelf for a number of years and this will be my first time reading it. I have read three other books by Eco (an Italian mathematician and professor of semiotics), The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. I have enjoyed all three and expect to enjoy this one.
How can I not when the opening line is:
I am, I believe, alone of all our race, the only man in human memory to have been shipwrecked and cast up upon a deserted ship.