Translated from German by Lee Chadeayne
When travelling I like reading material to be set in my destination. But I’ve read all my Munich material, so this time I settled on a novel written by an author who lives there. The Hangman’s Daughter is set in 1660 in Schongau, a small Bavarian town, and contrary to the expectations raised by the the title, the hangman, not his daughter is the main character.
When a dying boy is fished from the river, a strange tattoo-like mark on his body suggests witchcraft is in play. A second victim cements the town’s mounting hysteria. Memories of the previous witch hunt, which claimed dozens of lives, have not yet faded. A solution must be found, and quickly. Jakob Kuisl, the hangman, is ordered to extract a confession from the local midwife and wise woman, Martha Stechlin, who was known to spend time with the children (orphans) in question. The thing is, Martha delivered his children, and he does not believe in her guilt.
You’d think that the authorities would think twice when more children disappear during Martha’s incarceration. But no, the blood-boiling ignorance of medieval* men, threatened by knowledgable women, is on full display here. She’s a witch, she can do anything she wants. Besides she has cohorts – in particular, that devil-like figure with the bony hand, who has been sighted around town in recent days. That apparently is the power with the pitiful, terrified creature awaiting her fate in the cells!
Jakob Kuisl knows he will have to torture a confession out of Martha, unless he uncovers the truth quickly. He make enquiries with the aid of his daughter, Magdelena, and her admirer Simon, the educated son of the town’s physician. But it is a race against time. Can he solve the mystery before he has to inflict irreparable damage on Martha and more children are killed?
The mystery fires along at a tremendous pace. It’s not all witchcraft. Pötzsch incorporates both the trade war between Schongau and Augsburg and the legacy of the 30-years war. But for me the real strength of the novel lay in the examination of Jakob Kuisl’s character and the circumstances of a hangman’s life, fuelled by the author’s fascination with his own ancestor! What did it take to be a town executioner? What were the actual duties? How was the hangman viewed by the rest of the community? How did this impact on his family? While Pötzsch makes the man human, he does not flinch from brutal, unsavoury realities either. Showing, though not dwelling, on the cruelties involved in his job. The result is complicated. It is impossible to like the man. Similarly impossible to hate him.
The Hangman’s Daughter is the first in a series, currently consisting of 8 titles. While Magdelena played a pivotal, but supporting, role in this story, I’m sure promotion lies ahead. I look forward to finding out.
* 1660 is too late to be called medieval, but these attitudes hadn’t yet moved on …