The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

36 of 52 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

The Hangman’s Daughter is a mystery set in 17th century Bavaria. Oliver Pötzsch is a German filmmaker who happens to be a direct descendant of a line of hangmen. He began his research on the topic as family research and turned it into this novel that has apparently done very well in Germany.

I give the book high marks for an interesting story idea somewhat more mediocre marks for writing style. Maybe it reads better in German than it does in English, but I found the style lumbering and awkward. I kept thinking it would make a better movie than book. I expect we’ll see a movie of it at some point, and when we do, I’ll be one of the first in line for a ticket.

The most interest part of the book is the historical detail involved in depicting the life of a hangman and his family. I never really thought about the fact that torture and execution was considered a trade, that every town needed its own executioner. Since I hadn’t thought that far into it, I certainly didn’t consider how being in the business of executions would make a man and his family both respected and social outcasts. Interesting stuff.

And, of course, this is the 17th century we are talking about, so we have to bring in some witch hunts. Turns out Bavarian witch hunts weren’t much different from New England witch hunts. It only took one person shouting “witch” for utter chaos to ensue with no end in sight to the number of women who would be burned at the stake before it was over. It’s a wonder the human race even survived this time period.

I also found the medical information in the story interesting. The hangman is an herbal healer. You can’t make a living by thumbscrews alone, it seems. He needed a way to supplement his income, and he did it by mixing and selling potions.

When several village children end up murdered, and an innocent midwife is jailed with accusations of witchcraft, the hangman ends up partnered with a young physician to try to catch the real culprit and put an end to the murdering. This gives us a chance to compare what the universities were teaching about medicine at the time to what the herbalists were practicing. Since the university trained physicians basically just bleed people at the time and hoped for the best no matter what the condition, the herbalists were far ahead of the game. They could relieve fever and pain, and they understood at least rudimentary ways to fight infection.

The plot of The Hangman’s Daughter is clever, and the background has been well researched. If you have a particular interest in this time period, and/or if you are a particular fan of historical mysteries, you would probably enjoy it. The writing style didn’t personally appeal to me, but maybe that’s just me.

Regardless, I won’t soon forget the story, and I’ll be looking forward to news that there is a movie forthcoming.

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