Thursday, February 17, 2011

Flesh wounds

Aaaah, historical fiction. Most commonly the province of shakily researched bodice-rippers, there are some eras that have been sadly overlooked. Some epochs just aren't as sexy as others, and pre-unification Germany is definitely one of those. Germany of the 1600s is actually a handful of principalities, tiny kingdoms, and duchies, populated by a beknighted group of peasants, nasty superstitions, no soap, and some of the worst living conditions of medieval Europe (which is sort of like saying, the worst strain of Ebola. It's all bad.).


The Hangman's Daughter is set in the provincial little town of Schongau in the Duchy of Bavaria. Schongau is a persecuted town, both by the superstitious inhabitants, the marauding Swedish army (pre-IKEA and blond wood furniture, the Swedish army was the most feared and brutal in Europe), and avaricious burghers. The past few years have been even more unkind than usual to Schongau, with floods, hailstorms, plague, and the end of the Great War decimating the town's population.

The Hangman's Daughter follows the Kuisl family about their deadly business. By tradition, the position of executioner is a hereditary one, and the Kuisls are regarded with fear and suspicion by the townspeople, but tolerated because of their necessity.

The discovery of the battered body of the young son of one of the townspeople sets the deadly plot into motion. Hysteria mounts when its revealed that the child has a symbol associated with witchcraft stained into his skin, and suspicion immediately falls on the town's midwife, Martha Stechlin. Jakob Kuisl, the hangman, takes Martha to jail to save her from the hysterical mob, but with pressure from the burghers to extract a confession by torture, Kuisl has little time to find the killer.

Aided by the town doctor's son, Simon, a foppish intellectual whose enlightened ideas put him at opposition with his father and the town (and who has an inconvenient crush on Jakob's beautiful daughter, Magdalena), Jakob begins investigating a conspiracy that involves the town's orphans, the wealthy landowners, and a group of mysterious strangers.

Poetzsch quickly sets up a dichotomy of good - the rational, intellectual Kuisl, Simon, and a small handful of townspeople, and evil - backward, provincial peasants, the grasping aldermen - and throws in a handful of diabolical soldiers for good measure. The Hangman's Daughter is really a twisty whodunit disguised with the trappings of historical fiction, philosophy, and lashings of the supernatural, but the only evil here is made by men, not devils.

As the conspiracy widens, the novel becomes satisfyingly complex, but the end is something of a letdown as it reverts to a hero-versus-villain climax no different from the latest iteration of a Temperance Brennan novel. Despite this, The Hangman's Daughter is one of the better researched pieces of historical fiction that I've read lately, and Poetzsch weaves information about life in 1600s Europe neatly into the narrative without seeming affected or showy.

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