Book Review: The Hangman’s Daughter

By Darlene Fuchs on Email

Book by Oliver Pötzsch and translated by Lee Chadeayne
Original title in German: Die Henkerstochter

This is a historic, fast paced crime novel that takes place in the 17th century medieval Bavarian town of Schongau (there was no German state yet). The superstitious townspeople are thrown into a frenzied panic when Martha Stechlin, the local midwife, is accused of being a witch and charged with the murder of a young boy.

Someone, a witch or the devil himself, is brutally murdering orphans crudely marked with an ominous tattoo that looks like the work of witchcraft.  Reacting to the townspeople’s paranoia, the town council, led by Johann Lechner, insist the only way to stop the mounting hysteria from erupting into chaos is to sacrifice the “witch” by burning her at the stake.

Jacob Kuisl, the town Hangman, is charged with extracting a confession from Martha by inflicting torture.  Certain of the midwife’s innocence he takes it upon himself to exonerate her of the charges with the help of his clever daughter, Magdalena, and the town physician’s son, Simon Fromweiser. They have to rush to unravel the mystery in hopes that they can prevent further bloodshed.

As Walpurgisnacht approaches, when witches are believed to revel and mate with the devil deep in the forests, Jacob finds himself in the middle of a complicated plot, bringing him face to face with the “Devil.”

The historical context is really interesting and the details surrounding the power structures in the town reveal the oppression and corruption during this time period.

The character development of Jacob the Hangman, my favorite character in this novel, is excellent. I enjoyed the way his character empathizes with people who are sentenced to be executed.  Even though he is morally conflicted, he is bound by law to carry out legal death sentences.

Magdalena’s role in the book is not as prominent as one might expect from the title. The Hangman is more of a pivotal character than his daughter. However, I was pleased to find out that this is the first book in a trilogy that continues to develop the Hangman’s daughter, Magdalena’s character, over time.

Although the beginning of the book got off to a compelling, sometimes gruesome, fast-paced start, it lulls a bit towards the end. But even the most discerning reader will be caught off guard with an unexpected surprise or two.

The author, Oliver Pötzsch, born in 1970, has worked for years as a scriptwriter for Bavarian television. He is a descendant of one of Bavaria’s leading dynasties of executioners. Pötzsch lives in Munich with his family.

The Hangman’s Daughter was published in the US in 2011 by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It was Costco’s August book buyer’s pick.

Darlene Fuchs