Jakob Kuisl, the Schongau hangman, is on his way to Regensburg to visit his gravely ill sister. As he tries to enter the city, he is detained by the guards and has to spend the night in a cell. In the morning, as he enters the bathhouse that his brother-in-law and sister keep, he finds their bodies with their throats slit and the guards ready to arrest him minutes after the grisly discovery; someone had obviously tipped them off. With everyone convinced of his guilt, he is thrown into the city dungeon where he is awaiting torture before inevitable execution. It falls to Kuisl's daughter Magdalena and her lover Simon, fleeing the Schongau inhabitants' narrow-mindedness, to prove his innocence. Little do they know that they are about to stumble on a clever revenge plot centring on Magdalena's father, one that might have dangerous consequences for the entire German Empire.
This is already the third instalment in The Hangman's Daughter series but the first I read. It feels impeccably researched and the long chapters build up the atmosphere of Regensburg in the middle of the 17th century very well, yet, by the same token, they also reveal the novel's notable lengths; the book definitely feels 100 pages too long. There is a lot of fleeing from one point of refuge to another through a warren of back streets and alleyways and one too many rescues from certain death at the very last moment in my opinion, stretching credibility. The characters are mostly well drawn, even if some are teetering precariously close to cliché: the fat brewmaster monk and the fop and ladies' man Italian, for example. There's also the good old, if well-worn, plot device of "I'll make a few enquiries and will tell you the answer in the morning", only to find that the character has been conveniently killed off by that time, and I felt the lack of credible alternative villains rather keenly. There are annoying little plot inconsistencies that niggle in the background, and the final solution feels historically neat, yet too elaborate for the humble hangman to be involved in. The prologue, while important for setting the scene, also gives away the mystery of the hangman's enemies too easily, and I had guessed the reason for their planning revenge on Jakob Kuisl very early, thereby depriving me of the tension that revolved around their identities. Interesting from a historical perspective (the novel is set barely fifteen years after the Thirty Years' War) and diverting, yet a bit too formulaic for my taste: a generous four stars.