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Very nice historical mystery
on November 7, 2010
This English edition of "The Hangman's Daughter" is Lee Chadeayne's translation of "Die Henkerstochter", by Oliver Potzsch. (There's an umlaut over the "o" in his name, but I don't know how to make that!) The mystery's last chapter is titled "A Kind of Postscript", where Potzsch describes how he is a descendent of the real-life Kuisl executioner family. He uses the names of a real forebear for his protagonist, Jakob Kuisl, the offical town hangman, and Jakob's immediate family. Though Potzsch has researched the life and times of a Bavarian hangman and the town he lives in, this particular storyline, murder and other characters are fictional.
This is very interesting stuff. As is made clear in the novel, executioners were necessary for carrying out legal death sentences, but they and their families were shunned outcasts. They pretty much married only within other executioner families. In addition, executioners were the torturers back when a confession through torture was the legal method of determining guilt. Humans have unlimited ability to rationalize anything. So a suspect is tortured until she confesses to the crime. She is not guilty until she confesses. The torture continues until she confesses, after which she is put to death, or until she dies from the torture without confessing. The moral of the story is, don't make anyone mad enough to blame you for something.
I guess when I think "tried for witchcraft", I usually think "Inquisition". But it wasn't just the church that held trials for accused witches. Anybody could claim injury from a witch, and the secular authorities held their own trials for witchcraft.
For example, the 1692 Salem Witch Trials were secular.* And it's the same in "The Hangman's Daughter". A midwife is accused of witchcraft and murder. Jakob Kuisl must legally torture her for the politically expedient guilty verdict the village council desires. However, Jakob doesn't believe she's guilty, and takes it upon himself to find the real murderer. The mystery takes place in Schongau, a village in 1659 Bavaria (there was no German state yet). I'm not sure when Bavaria outlawed legal torture, but I'll take Potzsch's word for it that it survived in Bavaria to this time.
I liked the characters in this book. Actions and reactions ring true, even if they are sometimes over the top. You have the super-practical Jakob who still has to get drunk the night before an execution. His daughter, cut from the same cloth. Simon, son of the local quack, who can't get any respect because he's into new-fangled medicine instead of bloodletting and purging. The court clerk, intelligent, but willing to cut any corner to avoid a scene in his town. The village burgomasters, running the gamut from young & idealistic to old & drunk.
I'm rating "The Hangman's Daughter" four stars for the plotting and characterization and five stars for the historical interest. It is a long book and can get just a bit wordy. This does not have the pace of a thriller. Incidentally, don't let the occupation of Jakob Kuisl worry you. There is no graphic violence or even graphic language.
* Though the accused in Salem were mistreated before sentencing, only one was technically tortured. Eighty-year old Giles Corey refused to enter a plea, as a protest against the court's mania. In an effort to force a plea, the court ordered that stones be piled on his chest until he couldn't breathe. It took him two days to die and he never entered a plea.
I am reviewing from the Advance Reader's Copy Uncorrected Proof.