The story captures you from page one, the characters are under your skin before the first chapter ends, and the storyline promises a well-layered plot. And, yes. Pötzsch delivers. More about the book later.
Right now, someone else must be discussed as it is crucial to Pötzsch’s international success: the translator.
My readers know that I can get very disappointed when I read a translated book that doesn’t do justice to the original. But, I will be the first to rave over a translation that is well done.
This translation is not just well-done, it is enchanting. Not for a moment does the translation hinder the reader from immersing themselves into the world that Pötzsch describes.
The translation is the work of Lee Chadeayne, who was a former classical musician and professor of German and French at Ohio State University, Boston University and Northeastern. After his retirement from teaching he founded Wordnet, Inc., an international online translation service. His translated works have a love for history. He passed away on March 25, 2017. He was 83 years old.
Rest in peace, Lee Chadeayne, and thank you for the magic.
We are in Schongau, Bavaria. The year is 1624. We are about to witness an execution. The hangman, Johannes Kuisl, is at home, drunk and passed out. The toll it takes to be a hangman, an executioner, is clearly described. As soon as a death sentence is pronounced and Johannes knows that he has to execute someone, he drinks, does not eat, hardly speaks, and at night he will wake up screaming drenched in sweat. His wife knows the routine. She will quietly take the kids and move temporarily to her brother’s house. However, the oldest son, Jakob, stays as he is expected to succeed his father. He must learn from observing so that one day, he will be ready to take over.
As per tradition, a hangman’s life is an isolated one. You marry within your own professional ranks. You cannot just pop into a bar for a drink. You need to ask all other patrons if they object to your presence there. And if none follows, the back table it is. A hangman has his own tankard and cannot use anything else. Nobody wants to be seen greeting a hangman but when they are sick and cannot afford the doctor, they will gladly make the trip to the hangman’s cottage. He knows how to take a life, break a body, but also how to mend and set fractured bones. He knows about herbs that heal and herbs that kill. In other words, it takes a good mind to be a hangman.
The Hangman’s Daughter
As our story begins, we are still in Schongau, but the year is 1659. Jakob is happily married with three children and indeed, has taken over as hangman from his father. The isolation for him and the family is the same. Like his father, he has an extensive knowledge about the human body and the description of his small study, just makes you want to live there to read all his books. Jakob’s oldest is Magdalena. Headstrong, eager to learn, intelligent, and fiercely independent. She helps to look after the twins, Georg and Barbara.
Simon Fronwieser, the son of the town’s physician, struggles with many feelings. Is it better to be university educated as a doctor or does practice matter? How loyal should you be to family even when you know that their medical knowledge is subpar? As he struggles to find his way, one thing is clear. He is not confused about his feelings for Magdalena.
But any romantic development is firmly on hold when a boy is fighting for his life in the river Lech. With the help of men around, they reach the boy who is badly hurt. His face is puffy and the back of his head is crushed. He dies from his injuries. But he didn’t just slip and fell into the river. A firm blow to the head made sure he landed there. But why?
The boy is Peter, Josef Grimmer’s son. Grimmer is a wagon driver in Schongau. Peter is his only surviving family. His body is later examined by Jakob and Simon. On one shoulder blade, there is a mark that does not bode well. If it is witchcraft, people fear a repeat of the Schongau witch trials that happened 70 years ago. Dozens of women were burned at the stake, mass hysteria reigned, and the town’s economy fell into chaos.
This time, there can only be one person responsible for Peter’s death: the midwife, Martha Stechlin. She is Grimmer’s next door neighbour. With her profession and knowledge of medicine and herbs, Martha is an easy target for the anger, fear, and frustration. The crowd would have lynched her if Jakob Kuisl had not stepped in on time.
When Jakob and Simon examine Peter’s body, they find some interesting things. Peter has red earth under his fingernails as if he had been digging with bare hands. His nose is broken, his face beaten, and he has seven stab wounds in his chest. If this is a case of witchcraft, that both men doubt, why the seven stab wounds? Why not just put a curse on the boy and/or leave a mark? Worse, the stab wounds are wide and long. They were not made with an average kitchen knife but more likely with a saber. But there’s more, the mark on Peter’s shoulder is not branded. It is tattooed with elderberry juice. And, he had sulfur in his pockets.
Kruisl is ordered by court clerk Johann Lechner to torture Martha, to extract the truth, and to do it fast to avoid riots. Suspecting that the town council will indeed sign off on the torture, and that the procedure then cannot be stopped, Kruisl sets out to discover the truth.
On this journey, he has the support of Magdalena and Simon. And together, they find circumstances that clearly point away from witchcraft. A leper house under construction is vandalized time and again, there’s discord within the town council between those who believe in a more logical explanation for the facts and those who blindly accept witchcraft, and Martha tells Jakob that a mandrake was stolen from her home.
Then a second boy turns up dead. Anton Kratz’s throat was cut. Is there a connection to Peter? Yes, Anton too has the mark and both were orphans. They hung out with other orphans in Schongau and as a group they often visited Martha. She didn’t just gave them a meal but also a sense of home, of having a parental figure around. So, if Martha liked the orphans why would she kill them?
But our mysteries do not stop there as the devil is running around in the area. Tall, well-dressed, a long scar on his face, superman strength, and a skeleton hand. He is pursuing the orphan children but why? Someone is cleverly using superstitution, the trade rivalries, and a hidden treasure to their own advantage.
Where exactly the Hangman’s wisdom comes from, how he managed to buy all the expensive books, and how he ultimately fights the culprit, is not very clear. Maybe that is because this is book number one of a series. I guess that also explains the title: the hangman’s daughter. She is not the primary character, her father Jakob and Simon are however, as this is a series I guess it indicates the family tree and the continuation of traditions. In that sense, I expect the hangman’s daughter to grow into her role as main character.
The book has a map, a list of main characters, the pace is good, and the font is eye-friendly. I look forward to reading the rest of the series. If you like historical mysteries, multi-layered plots, and strong characters, this is your book. Highly recommended reading!
My other book reviews are here.