“The Hangman’s Daughter” by Oliver Pötzsch – Period mystery that confronts the brutality and superstition of life in 17th Century Bavaria

The hangman's daughterWhat I liked about “The Hangman’s Daughter” was how directly it dealt with the brutality of life in seventeenth century Bavaria. The work of the town hangman: torturing, breaking bones, and executing people with sword or rope or fire, is described with a graphic clarity that is not for the faint hearted.

“The Hangman’s Daughter” illustrates both the mechanics by which superstition creates fear and channels it into hatred and the difficulty of combating this response in world were people have been raised to rely more on belief than reason and where the Church and the State both underwrite the existence of magic and actively pursue those who are believed to use it.  The witch-hunt mentality is described as a smoldering fire that can be fanned into an inferno if the authorities fail to take the right action.

The political and social realities of the time (women as property and slightly less valuable than cattle, a class-ridden society where God, the torturer and the men with weapons are on the side of the property-owning classes, where orphans are cared for but seldom loved and where uneducated children run in packs in the streets) are described in a matter-of-fact way that is more disturbing than if the author had made the characters express anachronistic disapproval of the world they live in.

I got the sense that, in this recently war-torn land, peace, prosperity and the maintenance of the status quo where always under threat and that the most effective response to the threat was the judicious use of repressive, or at least retributive, violence by the State. People needed to be kept in their place or the world would devolve into the anarchy that they had lived through during the war years when soldiers ravaged the land. Of course, this is a world view that some of our leaders share even today.

The murders in the book are there to do more than set a “whodunnit?” puzzle, they are an opportunity to explore how little power people had over their own lives and to experience the impact of the belief systems of the time.  Nevertheless, the plot is solid and, apart from a slightly irritating tendency to mislead the reader by playing with timelines, it is well told.

One thing that didn’t work so well for me was the way in which the focus of the book moved from person to person, mainly the hangman, the young physician and the hangman’s daughter, without really getting inside the heads of any of them: we are told what they’re thinking and sometime what they’re feeling but it’s all a little at arm’s length from their emotions.

Despite the title, this book is not primarily about or told from the perspective of the hangman’s daughter. The hangman’s daughter is not a modern kick-ass amateur detective heroine dressed in a period costume. Yet the character of the young woman: curious, brave, strong-willed, playful and secure in her own worth despite being reviled by the people of the town, told me more about the hangman than anything else in the book.

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