The Hangman’s Daughter: Book Review
Publisher: AmazonCrossing (24 May 2011)
Author: Oliver Pötzsch
Germany, 1660: When a dying boy is pulled from the river with a mark crudely tattooed on his shoulder, hangman Jakob Kuisl is called upon to investigate whether witchcraft is at play in his small Bavarian town. Whispers and dark memories of witch trials and the women burned at the stake just seventy years earlier still haunt the streets of Schongau. When more children disappear and an orphan boy is found dead—marked by the same tattoo—the mounting hysteria threatens to erupt into chaos.
Before the unrest forces him to torture and execute the very woman who aided in the birth of his children, Jakob must unravel the truth. With the help of his clever daughter, Magdelena, and Simon, the university-educated son of the town’s physician, Jakob discovers that a devil is indeed loose in Schongau. But it may be too late to prevent bloodshed.
A brilliantly detailed, fast-paced historical thriller, The Hangman’s Daughter is the first novel from German television screenwriter Oliver Pötzsch, a descendent of the Kuisls, a famous Bavarian executioner clan. Three further titles in the Hangman’s Daughter series are currently in translation.
And that blurb sold it to me, but I can only hope the three further titles have a different translator. Let me dwell a little on the translator rather than the author, because I have to give voice to the possibility that my disappointment with the book lies not in the story but the English version. Alas, my German is not good enough to read it in the original. The translator is apparently no amateur. We are treated to a biography even in the book. On Amazon his bio is much bigger than the author’s, so he begs scrutiny.
Lee Chadeayne is a German-to-English literary translator. Most recently this includes The Settlers of Catan by Rebecca Gablé, a historical novel about the Vikings and their search for a new world, and The Copper Sign by Katja Fox, a medieval adventure in 12th-century England and France. As a scholar and student of both history and languages, especially Middle High German, he was especially drawn to the work of Oliver Pötzsch, author of the bestselling novel die Henkerstochter (The Hangman’s Daughter) a compelling and colorful description of customs and life, including love, murder, superstitions, witchery and political intrigue during early 17th-century Germany in a small Bavarian city.
The first thing I have to say about the book is that it contains not one memorable or thought-provoking line. That’s never good. It contains many confused and ambiguous sentences that any fledgling writer would have thrown back at him. The prose is, frankly, dull. And yes, maybe it’s not like this in German, but that is something I can’t prove.
But it also disappoints in ways that suggest the author may be to blame. It gets off to a good start but soon becomes a dull, historical detective story. There are no witches or sorcery, no devil and quite honestly there may as well be no hangman’s daughter. Considering the book is named after her, it’s a pity she has about as much relevance to the plot and the outcome as if she had been the milkmaid. I felt cheated. Add to that the sheer drudgery of the prose, the repetition of clues that would have enable Clouseau to solve the case before the halfway point, and you can see why getting to the end felt like walking round the equator in a pair of stiletto heeled shoes.
It had so much promise. I want to believe it’s in the translation.