Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Hangman's Daughter

The Hangman's Daughter
Author: Oliver Pötzsch (Translated from German by Lee Chadeayne)
AmazonCrossing, 2010 (Originally published in 2008)
448 pages

A few weeks ago, this was the top-selling Kindle book in the USA. The reviews were mostly good, but what really hooked me was that the author drew upon his own family history to create an amazing fictional family. You see, he descends from a line of village hangmen, or executioners. As an amateur genealogist, I kinda dig this.

Following the career path of his father, grandfather, and other male ancestors, Jakob Kuisl is the executioner and torturer for the Bavarian town of Schongau in the mid-1600s. Everyone is afraid of Kuisl not just because of his job, but because he's physically strong and imposing in stature. But Kuisl is actually a happy family man with a good wife, a young adult daughter named Magdalena (for whom the book is named), and five year-old twins. He's actually quite sensitive, too -- not at all the scary person he's made out to be . . . well, at least if you're not on the other end of his torturing. Ironically, Kuisl is more interested in healing than torturing. In fact, he supplements his income with herbs and other traditional healing methods (and also by cleaning the streets of the town once a week).

Bavaria is finally at peace after a long war (known historically as the Thirty Years' War), but peace hasn't fully come to Schongau. For one thing, mercenary soldiers are roaming around with nothing much to do except stir up trouble. And Schongau is slowly losing out economically to the nearby town of Augsburg, so there are issues between the tradesmen and merchants. When several young orphans are found dead, all tattooed with a mysterious symbol, there's talk of witchcraft. Immediately, the town's midwife is a suspect; she's a single woman who works with mysterious 'potions' and has been seen with the orphans. Although Kuisl is certain of her innocence, he knows he'll be expected to torture a confession out of the midwife . . . and eventually, to execute her.

Kuisl and his new friend Simon, a young university-educated physician who has a thing for Magdalena and a desire to learn the old ways of medicine, set out to find the real killer. But when Magdelena is kidnapped, things get personal for both Kuisl and the doctor. The last one-third of the book is especially hard to put down, and it's a breathless, fantastic ride.

The Hangman's Daughter is the first of at least two books featuring Kuisl, Simon, and Magdalena - but the others aren't yet available in English. Let's hope they are soon!