Published: August 2, 2011
Number of pages: 431
Publisher: Mariner Books
Genre: detective, history, some romance, torture, murder, witchcraft
Rating: ages 18 and older
Jacob Kuisl, a hangman of Shongau, Bavaria is assigned to torture and hang the midwife, Martha Stechlin for witchcraft and heresy. Her crimes: killing orphans and marking them with the witch’s sign. But Jacob is confidant that she’s innocent and that there’s someone else who’s murdering the children. His daughter, Magdelena, is a clever and headstrong girl with a secret admirer, the physician’s son Simon. Together the trio must find the real culprit, but are pressed for time as the day of the midwife’s execution is drawing nearer.
I liked this novel for two reasons: 1) a mysterious bloody murder that involves superstitions and witchcraft and 2) the detailed account of life in a small Bavarian town. While reading Potzsch’s colorful description of the townspeople, the customs, and lifestyle, I could imagine images of city life in Shongau. There’s a strong cast of characters such as Jacob Kuisl, the hangman, his stubborn daughter, Magdelena, and the physician, Simon Fronweiser who aides Jacob during the murder investigation.
You picture the hangman as a cold-hearted and sinister person, but Jacob is nothing like that. He’s intelligent with a profound knowledge and unorthodox practice of medicine, shows compassion for his daughter, and is not quick to make judgment of others as with Martha Strechlin, the midwife. Jacob shows feelings of empathy to those he loves and cares for, but never does he show mercy to offenders of the crime.
In a time where autopsies were blasphemous and medicine was premature, it’s difficult for anyone like Jacob to prove the innocence of the midwife, especially when people believed in superstition. But Jacob is a practical man to think that it was not the makings of a witch, and with Simon’s loyalty and respect they both go out of their way to find the true criminal. I love the daughter, Magdelena as she is confident, precocious, and alluring. She’s also well aware of Simon’s feelings for her as she continues to seduce him with her charm (to her father’s disapproval). In my mind there’s nothing like a good mystery then adding a strong, compelling female character to the story, especially one that can outsmart men.
The novel was originally written in German but there aren’t any discrepancies in the English translation. Oliver Potzsch is descended from the Kuisls family, a line of Bavarian executioners that inspired him to write the Hangman series. In the story everything about the character of the hangman is factual, and so are the life and times in 17th century Bavaria.
My verdict: 4 hoots of out 5.