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The year is 1624 - a time of great superstition; the place is Schongau, Bavaria. 12 year old Jakob Kuisl is apprenticed to his father Johannes, the Hangman, and is off to watch the execution of a young lady, Elisabeth Clement who was found guilty of burying her dead child. When the execution goes horribly wrong, Jakob vows never to follow in his father's footsteps, but zooming forward to 1659 it seems he was unable to escape his fate as he now holds the post and he and his family are treated like outcasts and met with suspicion and fear at every turn. When a young boy Peter Grimmer is found dying in the river with multiple stab wounds but also what appears to be a symbol of witchcraft on his shoulder his father places the blame on poor midwife Martha Stechlin (midwifery another profession swathed in suspicion) who failed to save his wife and child years before and she is immediately hunted down and incarcerated to be tortured into confession. Jakob, whose job it is to carry out the torture and ordered by the local clerk to get a confession no matter what, is convinced of her innocence but only has a few days to try to save her. With the aid of a local physician Simon Fronweiser, who just happens to have a thing for his daughter, he sets about trying to find the real culprits but as more children start to die and disappear, buildings are burnt down and panic begins to grip the town time is running out for Martha - can she be saved from a horrible fiery death or will she go to the stake as the real villains escape justice?
"The Hangman's Daughter" was originally written in German by the author and scriptwriter Oliver Pötzsch who himself is descended from a line of Bavarian executioners and as a result his obvious connection and affinity with the character of Jakob Kuisl shines throughout. This story escaped from Germany via the Amazon Publishing subdivision AmazonCrossing, being translated by Lee Chadeayne, and has been sold cheaply on the Kindle since December 2010 where it became a huge hit in America and subsequently over here in the UK. The first thing I would have to say about the book is the superb job done with the translation - I have read many a translated book that suffers greatly from various things being lost in translation such as ridiculous dialogue and just plain odd grammatical structuring with some severe adjectival misuse, but this book certainly isn't one of them, as there is a wonderfully natural flow to the prose which is evocatively descriptive, easy to read and quite engrossing.
Whether or not this is due to the translation from German I'm not sure (though I suspect probably not) but despite this story being set in the 17th Century the dialogue feels very modern and there was no obvious attempt to take into account the archaic use of language, so this could well divide opinions. People that like books, say by such an author as C.J Sansom, who is a great example of how to capture the 16th Century English style of language in a highly readable way, may well find this modern slant detracts slightly from making a completely believable setting, whereas others may well prefer the ease of reading and not having to decipher what is written. I personally didn't find it bothered me greatly, it's not like they were discussing tweets on their iPhones and in fact there was the occasional line that captured the period quite nicely: "Stechlin, you witch! To the stake with you! Burn her!". Hmmm...it's all gone a bit Monty Python-esque. To be honest, this is nothing more than a silly little niggle on my part and definitely not something that will have a negative impact on the overall enjoyment of the story (unless you're a stickler for pinpoint historical accuracy).
So, despite the dialogue not being as realistic as it potentially could have been, the setting and characters created hinted that a great amount of research and understanding of the historical period had gone in to the foundations of the story which really did create the thoroughly believable world of Schongau from the depiction of the squalid nature of the town with narrow lanes and human waste just tossed into the street and just how immeasurably bad the smell must have been contrasted with the natural beauty of the surrounding forests, to picturing the fascinating apothecaries with all kinds of weird and wonderful herbs and spices, and not to mention the rather macabre imagery of ominous torture instruments from the period that evoke a certain morbid fascination. Then adding in all the craftsmen of the time from builders, bakers, butchers and other tradesmen or more generally just the God-fearing and extremely superstitious townspeople all living at a relatively slow and tranquil pace it's easy to get utterly immersed in this Olde Worlde place which is delightfully different to modern day. We also get some intriguing insights into the lives of these accursed hangmen, whose duties extend not just the performing of executions but torture, dealing out medicinal cures plus rather cruelly street sanitation. Also, marriage of any family member is only permitted to another hangman's or butcher's family as they are considered dishonourable so there appears to be no escaping the life from one generation to the next.
So, with a brilliant and fairly unusual setting we get an equally thrilling detective story which relies solely on observation, guile and deductive skills for the investigation so none of this modern day DNA malarkey to fall back on. The hangman Jakob strikes an intimidating figure - a giant of a man, feared, shunned and capable of such cruelty and violence towards other humans in "the name of justice" somehow shows himself to be compassionate, fiercely loyal, brave and intelligent - a very odd makeup for an unlikely hero which makes the story all the more intriguing to see his unorthodox methods on the quest for the truth. Even more bizarre is his sidekick Simon, at only 5ft tall and prone to wearing the latest fashions from France he the opposite of an intimidating figure so mixing these two characters together is a stroke of genius for subtle comic moments. Given the name of the book, you probably would expect the Hangman's daughter to feature, and whilst she is not the focus of the story, she plays her part and she is her father's daughter - strong willed (i.e. argumentative), independent and intelligent, with bushy eyebrows (which was apparently most attractive in those days) she fills the gap for a strong heroine which balances the relationship dynamics of the story nicely.
This story is certainly not for the faint hearted as it is full of horrible injustices that effortlessly make your blood boil, such as the ludicrous finger pointing and intolerance born out of ignorant superstition, hate and prejudice that condemn people to horrendous torture and horrific deaths (namely women) whereby all it takes is one accusatory person to call someone a witch and it's curtains for them. Chilling indeed, making you rather glad not to have been born in the witch fearing 17th Century. I also really liked the fact that this book was realistically unflinching in its brutality by not being afraid to endanger and kill defenceless little children as back in those days moral codes seemed a little vague. The fact that nobody is safe leaves you feeling constantly on edge which makes for a gripping read as you become genuinely attached to the characters and fear for their well being. There is also one character of merit that plays on the superstitions of the time and becomes a disturbing, almost superhuman figure which adds to the rather creepy atmosphere surrounding this story and is another brilliant creation.
So, in conclusion I would say this is a clever detective story as motives were kept pretty hazy throughout, and even though there were not too many unexpected twists, there were enough dead ends to keep you guessing all the way to the end and plenty of dangerous moments to keep it a thoroughly gripping and entertaining read, especially with the threat of a literal deadline to contend with giving that tense feeling of time running out. This is a dark and often brutal tale with a couple of unorthodox lead protagonists facing some deliciously creepy adversaries set during dangerous times when people's brains and common sense were ruled by fear and not logic to immerse you in a fascinatingly macabre world. This story is not one for the faint hearted, but I would thoroughly recommend it to those that enjoy historical pieces (as this one, as far as I can tell, is very accurate) especially those with an interest in the legacy of witch hunting.