Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

[Translated from the German by Lee Chadeayne]

Rating: 3 Stars 

In ‘The Hangman’s Daughter’, Oliver Potzsch has come up with an intriguing new hero, Jakob Kuisl, the torturer and executioner of Schongau in 17th. Century Bavaria. This is a well-researched and entertaining blend of history and mystery, layered with details that bring a convincing verisimilitude to the story. 

The delicate-minded reader should beware. Potzsch is unsparing in relating the specifics of the executioner’s trade. The first chapter in particular is electrifying. However, the violence is not gratuitous; it is an essential element of this book. We are talking about the bad old days when the city executioners were encouraged to be as inventive as possible when it came to the matter of extracting confessions. Once the accused had broken down and confessed under torture, then even more ingenious methods were concocted for their death – beheading, drowning, hanging, being broken on the wheel. The whole town would turn up to witness the execution. It was like the county fair – the event of the season that nobody wanted to miss.

In these cruel times, the enigmatic and complex Jakob Kuisl, a man with a healer’s instincts, is instead forced to practice the trade that he was born into. The penalty for being a conscientious protestor would be banishment and possible penury, not a viable option for a family-man. His fellow townsmen, who don’t hesitate to approach him for medical assistance, otherwise shun him and his family, and treat them like virtual outcasts. 

His quandary in this book is that the bodies of brutally murdered orphans are turning up, and Martha Stechlin, the town midwife is being accused of witchcraft and murder. The villagers are in a mounting hysteria, and the town council wants a speedy investigation, confession, and execution, before the mob starts an uncontrollable witch-hunt. This would be a repeat of something that had happened fairly recently in Schongau’s history. Kuisl doesn’t for a moment believe that Martha is either a murderess or a witch, but unless he can find incontrovertible proof of her innocence, he is soon going to have to inflict a great amount of pain on a woman whom he likes and respects. Helping him in his mission are his daughter, Magadalena, and the town physician, Simon Fronweiser; that is, when they are not too distracted by each other.

Truth is stranger than fiction, and you don’t have to look much further than the author’s afterword for evidence of that. Oliver Potzsch is a descendant of the famous Kuisl dynasty of Bavaria, whose executioner’s sword was displayed in the Schongau museum till the 1970s, when it was stolen and never recovered. In writing this book, he was aided by the meticulous research and genealogical records of other family members who took pride and interest in their unusual background.

No comments: