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Friday, August 19, 2011

The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Potzsch

Title: The Hangman's Daughter
(Die Henkerstochter)
Translated from German by: Lee Chadeayne
Edition I read: AmazonCrossing, 2010 (ISBN 978-1-935597-06-6)
Source: bought it
Now also available from Mariner Books.

I noticed ads for this book on various book related websites recently and added it to my TBR list. A Mariner Books edition was just released on August 2, 2011, hence the ads, but several weeks ago I stumbled across a 2010 Amazon Crossing edition at a local used bookstore, The Frugal Muse. I'm interested in reading German mysteries and contemporary fiction that have been translated into English and with the hype that this book was receiving I jumped on it.

The story is primarily about Jakob Kuisl, an executioner in 17th century Germany (Schongau, Bavaria), who must torture and possibly execute Martha Stechlin, the local midwife, for witchcraft unless he can prove her innocence. Many of the local burghers think she murdered a child. She delivered the children of many of these people, but the year is 1659 and most people are quick to yell witch or devil when anything happens out of the ordinary. While Martha's in prison, more children die, the local warehouse is burned, and the construction site of the new home for lepers is sabotaged. The mob wants the witch to burn and the town leaders want a quick resolution for financial reasons. It's an age when a common belief is that "torture will lead us to the truth" (168).  Let's hope that believe doesn't make more of a return than it already has in recent years.

German cover
Jakob's daughter, Magdalena, for whom the novel is named, isn't a major character in the story in terms of time spent on the page, but she does play an important role here and there. However, I think it was misleading to title this book The Hangman's Daughter, but apparently having the word "girl" (or something close to it) in the title of a book is hot these days due to the popularity of the Millennium Trilogy. In case you're wondering, it does carry the same title in German (Die Henkerstochter). Magdalena is in love with the local physician's son, Simon Fronwieser, who is an apprentice physician to his father, but he's more temperamentally and intellectually compatible with Jakob than with his own father. As a hangman's daughter and a physician's son, their love is verboten, but Simon becomes Jakob's side-kick.

And then there's the devil, the creepy bad guy, and his lackeys as well as a group of plucky orphans of which only two are left, two tough little girls.

It sounded like a good book to me, but I'm sorry to say that it just didn't grip me like the ads suggested it would. I can't tell if this is due to the translation of the book or the story itself. There are three primary issues I had with the book: pacing, atmosphere, and character.

The pacing of the novel is not fast, but that doesn't matter much to me if the story is good. However, this book dragged in parts. The edition that I read is 431 pages long. I hate it when reviewers say a hundred or so pages could have been cut from a book (really, which 100 pages, smarty pants?), but I had that feeling with this book, particularly toward the end, during the last 130 pages or so.

Also, I expect historical mysteries to be a bit more atmospheric. The Hangman's Daughter mentions the narrow streets filled with mud and the slop from chamber pots, but I never got the sense of people actually living and breathing in these streets. There were stereotypical scenes of someone falling in muck, getting his nice leather boots dirty, but not what it would be like to live in the town day after day. The cultural expectations that bind people to their roles and out of which there is virtually no hope of escaping is presented more as fact than as feeling. Even Magdalena and Simon's forbidden love isn't presented in an emotional way. Again, there are the stereotypical scenes where the reader is told that people are talking about their scandalous love and the girl's father even finds them in the barn, complete with hay in Magdalena's hair.

And this leads me to the issue of the characters. In the beginning there were glimmers of well-rounded characters to come, complex characters (young Jakob watched his father botch an execution and vowed never to become an executioner...then 35 years later there he is, after serving as a solider in the Thirty Years' War he became an executioner after all, but not for the reasons you'd think). Magdalena is presented as a young woman with some spark, someone who knows her herbs, but then she fades away only to pop up again to move the plot along. And that's how the characters ended up feeling to me--like plot devices.

So who would want to read this novel after reading my criticism?  Let me point out that I DID finish this novel, which says a lot, since it seems like this year I've stopped reading more novels than in all the years of my life combined. So, I liked it enough to keep reading, there seemed to be so much potential, and I wanted to see where Potzsch would take things. Much of what I said above could, perhaps, be attributed to the translation. I'd love to hear from other readers about this book, especially if you read it in German.

Book Two!
There is a sequel. Die Henkerstochter und der schwarze Mönch, The Hangman's Daughter and the Black Monk, but it's only available in German at this time. 

Oliver Potzsch is a direct descendent of the Kuisl dynasty of executioners from Bavaria, so he has a unique perspective on things. I think Potzsch has great talent and I look forward to reading his next book. I'd recommend The Hangman's Daughter to avid mystery readers, particularly those who enjoy historical mysteries, but its probably not going to float your boat if you don't regularly read mysteries or historical fiction. Also take not that there is some gross, violent content, but nothing that is prolonged.

Overall, this story is fresh and the characters have great potential to become more fleshed out in future novels, but the, ahem, execution just wasn't there for me. 

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