With a title like The Hangman’s Daughter, you’d think the book would be about the hangman’s daughter, right? But no. The first of many disappointments ahead, be forewarned. I had heard about Oliver Potzsch’s book a few times in the last few years and the cover caught my eye in the library used book sale. It’s pretty, right?
The Hangman’s Daughter is set in a small German town, Schongau, in the mid-1600s. Like I said, you’d think it would follow Magdalena Kuisl, the hangman’s duaghter, but the action instead follows her father Jacob and the young town doctor (and Magdalena’s forbidden love-interest) Simon Fronwieser. Early one morning, a child turns up dead near the river marked with “a washed-out purple circle with a cross protruding from the bottom.” So basically the woman sign. But back then, it equaled witchcraft. Jacob is forced to arrest the town midwife and use “enhanced interrogation techniques” to get her to confess, though another child is killed while she’s in jail. Before the aldermen decide to hang her, Jacob and Simon must figure out who really is killing the children so justice can be served. And Simon has an ulterior motive: if he can prove he’s smart and able, he hopes to marry Magdalena. Potzcsh, it turns out, is a distant relation of the Kuisl hangman clan and tried to stay as true to family history (the Kuisls were known as being very well-read and respected healers despite the fact that they were still generally shunned in society) as possible. One of the creative licenses Potzsch took paid off – the villain of the story is truly and wonderfully evil. He’s known simply as “the devil” throughout the novel and has a fake arm made of crushed bones. It’s awesome.
I’m not sure whether it’s a poor translation (written originally in German), a product of the overly-formal 17th century time period, or just poor writing, but the first 300 pages are sloooooowwwww and disappointing. There are a lot of (German) names. A lot of Jacob and Simon running around the town. A lot of Simon fighting with his father about new and old medicine. A lot of Simon trying unsuccessfully to get with Magdalena. I think I came into the book expecting that Magdalena would have a central role — that she was the one who solved the murder mystery or she was the one who bravely came to her father’s or the midwife’s rescue. She doesn’t. It’s disappointing. I don’t think she was a strong character, and certainly not important enough to have a book titled after her. But then you get to the last 100 pages and it’s nonstop action – chases throughout the town, fights in pitch black tunnels, daring river escapes. It’s great. But getting there takes a lot of work.
I really wish I could give the book two different ratings because the ending really is exciting and satisfying, but as a reader you have to be really committed. Definitely not for everybody.
Rating: 4, Sub par (Bad. Just enough good to avoid complete disaster.)