Something is rotten in Bavaria, particularly at the monastery at Andechs, and it's not just the weather. The Schongau hangman's daughter, Magdalena, and her "bathhouse surgeon" husband, Simon, take a pilgrimage to the monastery for a holy festival. Their arrival is heralded by dreadful storms and an unfortunate string of corpses. Simon suspects foul play and it's not long before he calls on his father-in-law, Jakob, for assistance. Their investigation is complicated by the outbreak of a mysterious illness and the general shiftiness of the various monks. As the tide of pilgrims entering Andechs increases, the festival itself is threatened when several holy relics go missing.
"The Poisoned Pilgrim" is the fourth entry in the "Hangman's Daughter" series. It takes place in 1666, approximately seven years after the events of the first installment of the series. Although the reader would naturally benefit from having read the prior novels, this tale can stand alone.
The ominous portents and foreboding are laid on thickly from the outset. More pliable readers or those pining for dark atmosphere may be quickly engaged. Others will likely be alienated by how artificial it all appears. A storm isn't just a storm. A light in a belfry isn't just a light in a belfry. It's like the characters know they're in a murder mystery. Surely no one is always just that suspicious. This sets the stage for a rather poorly executed (ha!) novel.
The writing is frequently clumsy. In some instances, this is likely due to lazy translation. Much of the dialogue is unnatural and awkward. Analogies are mercilessly overdone and the pace is plodding. The characters, a highlight for me from the first novel, were shells of their former selves. Magdalena is a nagging wife whose feminist views on parenting seem oddly anachronistic. In my review of the original tale, I commented that she was "strong-willed but graceful enough to avoid being overbearing." In this latest work, all grace is gone and she has definitely crossed that threshold. Simon, too, has lost all charm. He's little more than a doubting foil to his wife. Jakob is practically portrayed as old, fat, and weak. Absent are the confidence and menacing strength that made him so captivating before. The family constantly bickers in the most unappealing ways. Add to this mix the two poorly behaved brats who seem to always be crying or pulling hair and there wasn't a pleasant or compelling character in the bunch.
The novel also embraces all the worst conventions of the genre. The plot is advanced by blatant contrivances like conveniently overheard conversations and other happy coincidences. Attempts at misdirection are ham-fisted and obvious. When a major character announces he has unraveled the mystery, he keeps it a secret from the other characters to avoid enlightening the reader. In a scene where he finally divulges his secrets, it's done off-page. This would have been extremely frustrating if I had been made to care enough about the mystery in the first place.
One potential highlight of the novel is that there are recurring themes from the earlier work(s). The dangerous dynamic between science and faith continues to play a major role. The dichotomy between what or who is reputable or dishonorable in perception versus reality is still highlighted. Also present is the conflict between pragmatism and idealism especially as it relates to justifying iniquity. Unfortunately, these thought-provoking issues aren't really explored or focused on. One area where the author actually delivered is his obvious love for the region and its history. He ties in historical details, even reimagining them, to make his account more authentic. Sadly, this isn't enough to justify slogging through the novel.