The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, translated by Lee Chadeayne
Life in Schongau, Bavaria in 1659 is pretty bleak. The town is rebuilding in the decade after the Great War - orphans abound, jobs are limited, and the townsfolk are quick to accuse each other of misdeeds. Although the rampant witch trials of the town's past have faded to a dim collective memory, it doesn't take much to start rumors of dark deeds swirling again. When a young orphan is found murdered and branded with a “witch’s mark,” a scapegoat is quickly located in Martha Stechlin, the town’s midwife who dabbles in herbs and encourages the orphans’ company. She is quickly taken into custody and it is up to Jacob Kuisl, the town’s hangman, to torture the truth out of her in The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, translated by Lee Chadeayne.
Every town at this time has a hangman, who inherits his profession from his father. Although Jacob Kuisl is well-read and financially well-to-do, the townsfolk routinely shun him because hangmen are considered the lowest in the town’s social order. When Martha is jailed, Kuisl suspects that something is not right because he has worked with her for decades and knows her to be an honorable and gentle midwife. He secretly starts researching her case to prove her innocence, while publically fulfilling his job as her torturer.
Unfortunately, things get worse in Schongau, and other orphans are also murdered. Town property is vandalized and although Martha is in custody, the town officials are quick to pin these events on her demonic power as well. Desperate to save Martha’s life by solving the murders, Jacob is joined in his detective work by Simon Fronwieser, a young physician, who has fallen in love with Kuisl’s daughter, Magdalena, and shares her father’s sympathetic view toward Martha.
The Hangman’s Daughter is an interesting mix of a historical fiction and suspenseful thriller. I found the setting of 17th century Bavaria intriguing. The language was a bit clunky at times, probably due to this being a translation from the author’s original German text. But if you like mysteries with a bit of history thrown in, The Hangman’s Daughter is an interesting read.