The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch and Lee Chadeayne
I seem to be a magnet for German writing lately. Looking for modern German writing, I came across this book - a German whodunit set in the seventeenth century.
The story is set in the town of Schongau, sometime after what the characters call the Great War – apparently the Second Northern War, between Sweden and a group of European states, including Germany. A pair of children in the town have been brutally killed, and an odd mark is left on them, which summons suspicions of witchcraft. The townsfolk immediately suspect a midwife, Martha Stechlin, of being the witch/killer. The town’s hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is given the odious task of torturing a confession from Martha. However Kuisl believes she's innocent, and he sets out to prove it.
The story is an enjoyably convoluted one in which it takes Jakob, his daughter Magdalena, and Martha’s romantic partner, Simon Fronweiser, the son of Schongau’s physician, to ferret out the truth and to see the real evildoers brought to justice. But a caveat or two.
Pötzsch is credited as the author in German, Chadeayne as the English translator, the book wildly popular in Germany since its publication in 2008. The prose is something that, if turned over to a writing class, would have suffered an open vein. Pötzsch is a TV writer in Germany, and all too often the story reads like a TV script. But the talent here is in orchestrating a story. Pötzsch knows to slowly dispense clues and he knows to alternate tension and moments of relief while building to the story’s climax. Clearly he knows the mystery genre and what makes it tick.
Interestingly, Pötzsch is also a descendant of the Kuisl family, one of Bavaria’s most prominent dynasties of executioners. (Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that these executioners, while considered vital to Germany’s welfare, were looked on much as were moneylenders - they weren’t allowed to marry outside the executioner cult.)
Here, the characters are memorable, but not eminently so – plot is god in this genre – but Pötzsch does an admirable job of bringing both his multitude of characters and the town itself to life.
Despite his portioning of clues, Pötzsch had me going until very nearly the end. And, though I wasn't looking for such here, his book advanced my knowledge of Germany's culture and history in a way only fiction seems able to do.
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars
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Native American culture. Education. Creative writing.