I suppose it would be more accurate to say this mystery novel is set in Bavaria, since “Germany” doesn’t exist in the mid 1600s. I was immediately intrigued by the setting because I used to be an exchange student in the town of Schongau, where the hangman and his family live. I have bicycled through Altenstadt and Peiting on a daily basis and made trips to Augsberg and Munich. So it was fun to read about what it must have been like hundreds of years ago.
I wasn’t aware that there was such a strict caste system toward the end of the Middle Ages – In the book, hangmen and their families are treated in a similar fashion to tanners and butchers in feudal Japan. They’re needed, but they’re untouchables. The hangman’s daughter, Magdalena, knows that she can only marry a man who is himself a hangman or a hangman’s son. Despite this prohibition, she falls in love with Simon, the son of the town doctor. Unfortunately this only increases the friction between Simon and his father, a former army surgeon who keeps trying to establish himself in the emerging middle class. Bonifaz Fronweiser is desperately disappointed in his only son, who dropped out of med school but is still a better doctor than his father – in part because Simon avails himself of the wisdom of Magdalena’s father, the hangman Jakob Kuisl. When he’s not being paid by the town to execute or torture criminals and suspected criminals like “witches”, Kuisl provides herbal remedies to half the town, who look down on him until they or their children become ill.
Himself related to a long line of Bavarian hangmen, author Oliver Potzsch brings these sympathetic characters very much to life along with the superstitions and fears of a much earlier time. The Hangman’s Daughter is the first in a series of murder mysteries and a cracking good read. At $18 for a new trade paperback, it had better be!