Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Books Yay!: The Hangman's Daughter, by Oliver Pötzch

This was another book I read on my iPad, and for those keeping track of my opinion on the eReader front, I've mostly been using the Kindle app on the iPad simply because I have been able to find more books I want on it. I like the iBooks reader too, and I have used both for reading and annotating. I find both the iBooks reader and Kindle app for iPad to be superior to my Dad's Kindle, but he also has a fairly early generation of the Kindle, so that preference may be overstated in regard to newer generations of the Kindle. I have NOT used - nor encountered - a Nook, so I can't comment on how that might compare.

The Hangman's Daughter is an intriguing little story set in a weird little enclave of society. Apparently, in the 1600s, executioners were not necessarily shunned, but were kept slightly aside from "polite society," and did not intermarry or intermingle with most of the people in the community. This book focuses on the Kuisl family, whose patriarch is well respected in his community for his skill as an executioner. When a child is killed and is found marked with a "witch's symbol," the local midwife is accused of witchcraft and thrown in jail to be tortured until she confesses her crimes. The aldermen of the town are anxious to have her hung to put the matter to rest, but their efforts are blocked both by Kuisl's sympathy and the continuation of crimes even after her imprisonment.

Kuisl, the local physician, and the midwife all share a knowledge of herbs and medicines, and this shared knowledge bolsters the hangman's faith that the midwife has nothing to do with the disappearance of those children. He and the physician team up to get to the bottom of the mystery, and find themselves in the middle of a political intrigue that runs much deeper than they ever could have expected.

This was a good, tight little mystery, with some interesting facts about medieval medicines and society, and a vibrant cast of characters with just enough weirdness to add interest without seeming forced. The story itself could easily have branched off into a pile of superfluous information, as historical fiction is occasionally wont to do, but Pötzch limits himself well and the book is all the better for it. In my opinion, most historical fiction goes off the rails when authors discount the ability of their characters to relay information about the period they're exploring on top of whatever stated facts are presented. Pötzch allows his characters to carry the water here, and that leaves the writing nimble and light enough to be both entertaining and illuminating.

I have only two complaints about this book, and one of them is shared by the next book I'll be reviewing, which was a far more egregious offense, so I'll discuss it more in depth there. That problem is the overuse of quotes. This is Pötzch's only violation of the "don't tell, show" rule. The book is full of quotes about physicians' medicines or drubs and drabs about the executioner's trade, and they are simply not necessary. A quote here and there can add interesting context to a piece of historical fiction, but they are overused here. My second complaint is somewhat more complicated. Some of the language in the book seems too modern for the time period. Language changes LESS over centuries than we usually presume, but in ,this case it does seem jarring in some places. Thanks to The Lucy, I now know that there are in fact era-appropriate dictionaries and resources for modern writers to check their language for consistency (I also know fro The Lucy that doing these checks can drive one to madness), so I am less willing to let this complaint go. That said, this book was also translated from the original German, so it's somewhat unclear whether this is a problem of Pötzch's or his translator's.

This is a nice little mystery with a unique voice. I enjoyed it and I felt like learned a lot about the period and about the unusual lives of executioners, which I'd never had real cause to consider before. I would definitely recommend this one, not only to history buffs, but to anyone looking for a good mystery in an unusual setting.

Crossposted at The Outpost

1 comment:

  1. thanks, not my usual fare but it sounds intriguing. will give it a look.