Book Review: The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

This story takes place in 1659 Bavaria. Although it’s called The Hangman’s Daughter, it mainly follows the hangman, Jakob Kuisl, as he fights to solve a mystery. A child’s body has washed up in the river with supposed markings of witchcraft, and Jakob and his allies are worried that this will begin a witch-scare like the one that happened thirty years earlier (and resulted in the torture and deaths of many innocent women).

I’d heard a lot about this bestseller, so I was hoping for something stellar, but it wasn’t as good as I expected. Part of that, I think, is because the book is a translation (it was originally written in German). The writing seemed uneven to me. At times, I would get lost in the narrative, but most of the time the writing seemed painfully slow, and I watched the percentage number on the bottom of my Kindle screen creep along. For the first thirty percent of the book, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to finish it. The story, to me, didn’t really pick up until I was 75% of the way through.

It definitely started out with an intriguing preface, illustrating the disturbing details of being a hangman. This profession, in the 1600s, was frowned upon but necessary. The hangman, with his knowledge of the human body (torture and medicine combined) was shunned by townfolk. He was also tasked with clearing the trash from outside of homes each week, and he and his family were considered “dishonorable.” The caste-like nature of this society is starkly different from what I know as an American, and it was interesting yet aggravating to me. Jakob has more integrity than anyone else in the book and should not have been treated so horribly. The fact that he was, and that he hated his job yet found ways of making it work, made him a likeable character. During the novel, he is tasked with torturing a confession out of a suspected witch, the midwife. Since Jakob respects the midwife (she delivered his own children), he uses his knowledge to delay the more gruesome parts of her torture, giving him time to solve the mystery (and disprove that it’s witchcraft). The majority of the book follows Jakob trying to track down a character known as “the devil” and determine what his role is in the murder.

Because of the title, I was waiting for the hangman’s daughter, Magdalena, to play a role—which she did about three-quarters of the way through. A doctor’s son has taken an interest in Magdalena, but since she is “dishonorable,” his family (and the rest of the town) disapproves of the match. I didn’t learn much about her, and as a result I felt too distanced. In fact, I felt this way about most of the characters. Some of the scenes took too long to get through. Some of the dialogue seemed unnecessary. And sometimes, when I wanted more details, the story fell short. A few more well-chosen details could have made me feel closer to many of the characters. I didn’t hate the villains the way I feel I should have, either. I’m not sure how much of this might be a result of the translation, though.

The Kindle edition did come with illustrations. My black-and-white screen didn’t do justice to these, but they did help fill in visual gaps. A hard copy or a bigger/brighter screen (cue ad for Kindle Fire!) would have helped.

I might be holding my standards a bit higher because this is a bestseller, but this is my honest opinion. I enjoyed the details of the story that gave me a taste of life in the 1600s: the smells, the discovery of a new powder called “coffee,” the strange herbs midwives and doctors would use for various ailments. I would have wanted more details about all the characters. The bottom line: it’s an interesting story that introduces a reader to the culture of 1659 Bavaria, but it could have been condensed, or kept the same length with lots more details added. I’m glad I borrowed it for free using Amazon Prime…

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