The Hangman’s Daughter

Written by Oliver Pötzsch
Review by Cecelia Holland

Germany in 1659 lay between the terrors of the wars of religion and the relative upswing of the Age of Reason, and this amazing book works that boundary beautifully. The little city of Schongau is finally recovering from the brutal Thirty Years War and its cruel aftermath; then a child dies, and another, and the horror of the witch hunt rises again. The local hangman has to find the real murderers before he’s forced to execute an innocent woman.

The story centers on the hangman himself, not his daughter, and he is a wonderful figure, a killer and a healer, calmly rational in a world of witches and demons and fires in the night, an angel with a sword who does battle with the devil himself, equipped with a skeleton hand.

The plot is just that over the top, too, but the picture of daily life, the crafts and lore, the work and the politics, the whole web of the community in Schongau fills the book like a Bruegel. Pötzsch’s omniscient narration (trans. Lee Chadeayne), always chancy in a mystery (why not tell us everything, then?), allows for a wide variety of viewpoints and motives, and through the range of characters shows both the terrible grip of the past and the hope of an uncertain future. If the plot gets a little knotty at the end, it’s a great read, and a fine inhabiting of the time and place.