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Enjoyable and Absorbing
on 14 February 2011
The Hangman's Daughter is translated from the German original as part of the Amazon Crossings programme. The background to the book is interesting, as Potzsch explains in the postscript. The executioner and torturer is Jakob Kuisl, who in real life was an ancestor of the author, although the actual events portrayed in this book are fictional. The action takes place in a small Bavarian hamlet called Schongau, and Kuisl's profession was very much a family business, being passed from father to son so that there were dynasties of executioners of which the Kuisls were one of the most famous in Bavaria. They were shunned by the other inhabitants and generally intermarried.
Briefly the plot involves the discovery of a dying and tattooed orphan, who is pulled from the river. Suspicion falls on the local midwife, who has delivered Kuisl's own children. It will be his responsibility to torture her to extract a confession. Convinced that she is not to blame Kuisl and his daughter, helped by Simon who is daughter's boyfriend, set out to find the real culprit. Meanwhile more children disappear, which casts further suspicion on the midwife. The race is therefore on to solve these crimes, before hysteria about witchcraft results in the execution at the stake, not just of the midwife, but of other innocent local women.
Jakob Kuisl is the very interesting central character rather than the hangman's daughter, Magdalena as the title would have suggested. He is a reluctant executioner and torturer, who has to psyche himself up with drink before performing his duties. He behaves with sympathy and compassion towards those who he has to deal with, and does his best to spare them mental and physical suffering often using his skills as a herbalist. Although an executioner is an unlikely hero, he comes across as likeable and intelligent.
The book is well translated in the main and the description of the sights and smells of Shongau are so graphic that you really feel you are walking in the town. There are just a few points where the translation is rather grating with modern phrases which do not seem to fit in with the time setting. As an example, at one stage Magdalena refers to `having it off' which does not seem quite in keeping! On the other hand the translation generally flows well and does not use antiquated language.
The plot is interesting and complex and the story gradually develops in a way which keeps you turning the pages. The ending is satisfying without being a surprising revelation. I imagine that the majority will enjoy The Hangman's Daughter even if historical novels are not their normal reading, and I am looking forward to further books in this series being translated. To date The Hangmans Daughter and The Black Monk (2009), and The Hangmans Daughter and the King of the Beggars (2010) are subsequent offerings which hopefully will be added in due course. Two further additional titles are apparently planned.