Set in 1659, in the small town of Schongau in Bavaria, Germany, more than one child has been murdered and they bear an unusual mark on their shoulders. The town’s hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is ordered to torture a confession out of the town midwife, Marta, who is suspected of witchcraft. Jakob doesn’t believe it and starts to dig into the mystery, finding far more devilish behavior than he expected.
I really enjoyed this novel. The mix of murder mystery, historical fiction, and the suspicion of witchcraft really grabbed a hold of me. I had never thought too much of who, in general, was in charge of executions, torturing, and other punishments (like cutting off a hand) and this book really opened my eyes to how Bavaria handled that. It was a family trait, the hangmen in general considered to be lowly men. It was near impossible to marry out of the trade and so hangmen families kept in touch throughout the area, often arranging marriages among their children. This aspect of the book really fascinated me and Kuisl (which rhymes with ‘weasel’ so it’s just fun to say) was a great character through which to get to know more about hangmen in Bavaria in the 1650s.
Jakob’s daughter, Magdelena, is close to marrying age. She’s clever and rather independent, her father’s station, lowly but untouchable, gives her some protection for going about unattended. Now my one little quibble with this book is the title, The Hangman’s Daughter. Really, this book is about Jakob and not about Magdelena. Indeed, she has a rather minor role. While the women are interesting in this book, they don’t get the spotlight and almost never call the shots. Yes, the title did pull me in, but it is also a bit misleading.
Other than that tiny criticism, I found it difficult to put this book down. Simon is the other main character. He’s the son of the town physician, but unlike his father, he attended a medical university. He’s fascinated by Jakob’s book collection, which contains books that traditional physicians reject. Simon doesn’t believe that bleeding a patient does any good, unlike his father. This dichotomy of what was considered true medical knowledge was on good display with Simon and his father.
Of course, then we have the midwife, Marta, who’s been accused of witchcraft. Early on, we know that one of the prominent town politicians doesn’t believe she is a witch but he feels Marta must be sacrificed to avoid a break out of hysteria, such as there was 70 years prior that resulted in so many being tortured and burned at the stake. Jakob, as the town’s hangman, is in a very difficult position. If he doesn’t carry out his sworn duty to the town (to torture the midwife), he could be dismissed, which would result in he and his family being turned out of the town. I really felt for Jakob! He had plenty of hard decisions to make, but once he set on a course he carried it out to the best of his ability. Nearly from the beginning, there was plenty of tension in the story because Jakob had only so much time to find the real culprit.
There was more than one piece to this mystery. Jakob and Simon have their hands full trying to get information out of townsfolk and orphan children even as they hunt down the supposed devil. Magdelena adds a few bits of knowledge here and there but is mostly a love interest. The scenes with Marta were the most touching and also chilling. Jakob does his best to minimize the damage, but he can’t be seen assisting her or even holding back. Towards the end, I was biting my nails as Jakob and Simon raced against a clock to save not only Marta but some of the remaining orphan children. The ending was quite satisfying and I was very pleased to learn there are several more books in this series. The translation was quite good. There was only one or two instances where I wondered if such a modern word was the right translation, but these few instances did not detract from the story at all.
I accessed a free copy of this audiobook through the Kindle Unlimited program.
The Narration: Grover Gardner made a great Jakob Kuisl. There were plenty of German words and names in this book and he did a splendid job in pronouncing them. His female voices were pretty good as well. His ability to imbue a character with emotions was put on display with Jakob’s scenes with Marta.