Review: THE HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER by Oliver Pötzsch

TheHangmansDaughterTHE HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER starts with great promise but ultimately failed to deliver on almost every one of my personal “what makes a book stand out” yardsticks.

There’s a nicely thought provoking (if incredibly violent) prologue in which a young boy participates tangentially in an execution where his father, the hangman, botches the job and is so horrified by what he sees he vows he will not follow in the family tradition and become a hangman himself. The novel proper opens 30 years later when that boy, Jakob Kuisl, is, after all, the hangman of his small Bavarian town in the mid 1600’s and one of the book’s biggest disappointments is that we never really find out what happened to force this disconnect between young Jakob’s intense feelings and the grown man’s circumstances. There’s a platitude or two from his wife about horrors he’s experienced in war but it doesn’t legitimately account for the turnaround and this lack of follow-through sums up the novel for me.

The main story concerns the death and disappearance of a specific group of children in the town. First one young boy is found dead and suspicion almost immediately falls on the town’s midwife who many suspect of being a witch. She is locked up and the hangman, whose duties include performing any appropriately sanctioned torture on the town’s criminals, is called upon to start the torture process. But Jakob Kuisl, who is also something of a healer, often sought out instead of the town’s surgeon, doesn’t believe her guilty and goes out of his way to slow down the process by which she will be tortured, found guilty and sentenced to death so that he can investigate. He is aided by the surgeon’s son who has also had some training and is besotted by the eponymous hangman’s daughter even though the relationship is forbidden. With one exception the town’s burghers though are willing to accept the midwife’s guilt at face value and pressure for the execution process to be swift, especially when there is another death and dastardly happenings affecting trade.

To me the plot here was a jumble of largely unbelievable set pieces and failed to engage me due to its focus on the details of things that simply aren’t that interesting. Various tortures are described in excruciatingly lengthy detail, as are the fights and chases and there’s a whole lot of aimless wandering about the place by various players. The mystery itself barely deserves the name being fairly obvious and not occupying all that much of the book’s considerable word count.. A lot tighter editing, particularly for the last third of the book, would have helped develop the sadly lacking sense of suspense and less focus on the sensationalist aspects of sex and torture would have prevented it becoming the kind of written soap opera it ended up being.

Another thing would have helped in this regard would have been some characters who were even vaguely more than one-dimensional. The many (many) townsfolk were uniformly and indistinguishable\y horrid (hating orphans, lepers, potential witches en masse) and the central three characters of the hangman, his daughter and the doctor’s son (who are generally called this throughout the book even though they all have perfectly good names) were uniformly wise, knowing and willing to flout convention in a way that seemed unrealistic for the period. There is no depth to any of them and no explanations for why it is they are so willing to risk everything (including their own lives).

The writing, or translation, is just pedestrian. Some phrases are repeated so often I thought about keeping a running tally. I think the most-used ended up being “she brought my/your children into the world” (which was uttered every time someone talked or thought about what was happening to the midwife) but there were plenty of others. In fact it sounded like entire sentences were repeated more than once; something I couldn’t easily check with my audio edition. There was also a lot of clunky exposition and dialogue and the person on Amazon who likened the book to an episode of Scooby Doo wasn’t far off as far as verbal clichés and silliness go.

Not only did this book have a fair amount of hype to live up to (something I try not to take into account) but it also opened strongly and made me think I would be in for a good read. The realisation that the prologue had been an aberration probably made me feel more harshly towards the book than I would have if the prologue hadn’t been there at all but I can’t help that. However, and happily for the author, I am once again in the minority because the book has received a swag of stellar reviews and a series has now developed.  For me there’s not nearly enough here to warrant giving the series another go; think I’ll see if the new Shona MacLean is available at Audible yet instead.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Grover Gardner
Translator Lee Chadeayne
Publisher Brilliance Audio [2011]
Length 12 hours 57 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 in the Hangman’s Daughter series

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6 Responses to Review: THE HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER by Oliver Pötzsch

  1. col says:

    Bernadette, one to avoid, hope your next book’s better


  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Bernadette – An excellent and thoughtful review as ever. I’m sorry this one was such a disappointment to you. As I was reading your review I was thinking about what you brought up about the lack of focus in the novel. I’ll admit I’ve not read this, so I can’t say if this is what happened, but I have read several historical novels that seemed so intent on telling about a particular time period that they forgot to actually tell the story – the mystery part of it, anyway. And about the sensationalism? Couldn’t agree more on the lack of appeal of that for me. No, thanks.


  3. Kathy D. says:

    Thanks for the heads up on this book. So many good books to read, so little time, so choices must be made of the crime fiction worth reading.
    Always appreciate the in-depth reviews, good, bad and indifferent.


  4. JoV says:

    I almost bought this book at Amazon UK when it is on offer. Thank goodness you wrote this review now I can rest my mind not thinking about what I have missed. Because it looks like I haven’t missed much. Yes, do look forward to the next book Bernadette, forget about this series.


  5. I loved your review : ” the townsfolk were uniformly and indistinguishably horrid” Brilliant ! I may have to read this book to have a good laugh, it sounds so dreadful. That Dan Brown Da Vinci book had me in stitches, so the bar is set very high…


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