Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Hangman's Daughter

Ever see a movie trailer with some fascinating scenes only to discover some scenes still lie on the cutting room floor?  I just saw Cloud Atlas, which I enjoyed, but during the credits I noticed people mentioned for scenes not in the actual movie. Ever buy something because of its label only to find the product is not as advertised?  Sometimes we are pleasantly surprised but often disappointed.  Then there are times when we are both pleasantly surprised and disappointed.  Today's book is a bit like that.

The Hangman's Daughter
By Oliver Potzsch
Published by AmazonCrossing
ISBN-10: 1611091497
ISBN-13: 978-1611091496

From Amazon:
        Magdalena, the clever and headstrong daughter of Bavarian hangman Jakob Kuisl, lives with her father outside the village walls and is destined to be married off to another hangman’s son—except that the town physician’s son is hopelessly in love with her. And her father’s wisdom and empathy are as unusual as his despised profession. It is 1659, the Thirty Years’ War has finally ended, and there hasn’t been a witchcraft mania in decades. But now, a drowning and gruesomely injured boy, tattooed with the mark of a witch, is pulled from a river and the villagers suspect the local midwife, Martha Stechlin. 
       Jakob Kuisl is charged with extracting a confession from her and torturing her until he gets one. Convinced she is innocent, he, Magdalena, and her would-be suitor to race against the clock to find the true killer. Approaching Walpurgisnacht, when witches are believed to dance in the forest and mate with the devil, another tattooed orphan is found dead and the town becomes frenzied. More than one person has spotted what looks like the devil—a man with a hand made only of bones. The hangman, his daughter, and the doctor’s son face a terrifying and very real enemy.
        Taking us back in history to a place where autopsies were blasphemous, coffee was an exotic drink, dried toads were the recommended remedy for the plague, and the devil was as real as anything, The Hangman’s Daughter brings to cinematic life the sights, sounds, and smells of seventeenth-century Bavaria, telling the engrossing story of a compassionate hangman who will live on in readers’ imaginations long after they’ve put down the novel.

About the Book:
      When a young orphan boy is pulled from the river, those gathered about the scene are shocked to see the boy wasn't just drowning but was cruelly injured and seeing a strange mark on the child's shoulder, words suggesting witchcraft are whispered. A short leap of imagination has the village midwife accused of the crime and of witchcraft.
   The hangman is called in by the town clerk, who effectively runs the town, and is instructed to 'get a confession' from the midwife immediately, even though the town clerk, himself, believes her to be innocent. It is what is best for the town. But Jakob believes the truth is what is best for the town and, with only days to do it, sets out to find the real killer. Unfortunately, there are several people who would benefit not just from a quick resolution to the crime but also from the death of the midwife, making Jakob's job hard. Making it still harder is the fact that no one deals openly with Jakob since it is both bad luck and inappropriate because of his profession. 
    Being shunned makes it hard to question people so Jakob enlists the aid of the doctor's son, Simon, who both loves Jakob's knowledge, his modern books, and his beautiful daughter, Magdalena. Simon is somewhat reluctant but as more children die, it becomes imperative to stop the killer.
   Baffling to both Simon and Jakob is how or if the burning of the warehouse and the destruction of the beginnings of the house for lepers has to do with the murdered children.

My take:
     The title, The Hangman's Daughter, leads us to believe the daughter will be a major part of the book - disappointment; instead the hangman himself is the most central character - pleasant surprise. Other surprises include the doctor's son, Simon whose love of books and modern knowledge comes through much clearer than his love for Magdalena (still, loved his 'testing the water' innocence of his affair with Magdalena and thought it fit in with the 'times').
     I enjoyed the book overall, especially the mystery which kept eluding me even as I knew something about the 'bad guys'.  The book moves slow in some places, though the whole of the story takes place in a very few days. While the characters were not so fleshed out that I could 'fall in love' with them, I did enjoy them.  Each was different enough from the rest to give the reader a sense of a whole community of people, rather than the same person - different name feeling you can get from some books.  The midwife came through particularly strong for me because she seemed stoic and resigned at the same time. Her strength was what gave the story its urgency.  I wanted to save her as much as anyone.
   The things I didn't like were minor. The constant use of first and last name, especially of the main characters, made me want to yell at the author, "I know who Jakob is!" The use of modern idioms, which, when I saw the first couple, I thought, "These must be older than I think" but later decided it was laziness on the part of the translator. The author, while giving us glimpses of 1659, never gave us much of a feel for what it was like.  His lack of command of descriptive words and phrases or maybe the lack on the translators part might be to blame.

    I did enjoy the book. It would be a good read for anyone who likes a historical mystery that has a twining plot but doesn't go too deep into the characters or setting.


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