Review of 'The Hangman's Daughter' by Oliver Potzch

Available from Amazon.  Original German publisher Ullstein Taschenbuch.

It’s taken me a long time to read this book.   As its title suggests, much of the writing was bloodthirsty and, as you know, Dear Hangman GameReader, I don’t do blood and guts, torture even less.  To be honest, it wasn’t my ‘cup of tea’, but, fortunately for the world of literature in general, a novel’s worth does not depend upon entirely on what Charlie Britten thinks.

Based in early modern Schongau in Bavaria, the story concerns accusations of witchcraft and the battle of Jacob Kuisl (the town hangman) and Simon (a young physician) to save Martha Stechlin (the local midwife) from being burned at the stake.  It should rightly have been called ‘The Hangman’ because he is the main character and the hangman’s daughter, Madgalena, only has a relatively small part in it.   Although he seems to take an especial delight in describing dirt (mud, filth, sweat and excrement), Oliver has done his research very well, not just into the hangman and witches but in seventeenth century life in general, particularly regarding people’s attitudes to each other and executioners, doctors and midwives and their neighbours in Augsburg in particular.    However, I did feel that he failed to understand how people in the seventeenth century worshipped, allowing one character to say that he doesn’t believe in the devil or the heavenly father;  with the Reformation only just settling, everybody would have accepted both unquestioningly.

Jacob Kuisl is portrayed in a very favourable light; it is difficult to get one’s head around the idea of a nice hangman, definitely on the side of the angels, who tortures but tries not to hurt his victims.   The hangman has a certain Holmesian quality about him, always right, always able to fight his way out of a corner, and, as the novel progresses, Simon develops into a well-meaning but flummoxed Watson.   Magdalena comes across as a sort of pale Elizabeth Bennett – with her petticoats covered in mud at several points.  Apart from Simon, Magdalena, Martha, it is clear that the author has no time for any of the other adult characters.  In the prologue Oliver tells us that he is a descendant of the Kuisl family, but that the story itself is a novel; this, I feel, affected the way he drew his characters, with possibly too much respect and too little complexity.

I read this book in English – obviously.  Lee Chadeayne’s translation from German to English was smooth and natural, to the extent that the reader might be forgiven for thinking that it had been written in English originally.  Certain words and placenames were not translated eg Stadl and Ballenhaus, and, even though I don’t know for sure what they mean (although one can hazard a guess),  referring to them by in English would have taken them out of their seventeenth century German setting.

So, there it is.  The wrong book for me, I think.

On another topic, I didn’t submit an entry to the Mslexia Short Story comp.  As usual, life took over and the story wasn’t finished – not in the sense that I hadn’t written the last few paragraphs, but it wasn’t fully edited.  It still didn’t feel quite right.  Last year, I did submit and I remember posting on Chapter Seventynine (the writing site I belong to) that you shouldn’t waste £10 on a story that’s blatantly not ready.  Here we go again!

No, my  key on’t ork.  Oops!  I meant I’m having problems with my W key.  Computers, eh?  At least, I’m not sharpening pencils, I suppose.

(Image from Wikimedia.)

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7 thoughts on “Review of 'The Hangman's Daughter' by Oliver Potzch

  1. julielees

    This book doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, either. I’m not big on blood and gore, and torture is a definite no no. A few years ago, I had to stop reading a well written & interesting book by Anita Shreve, ‘Resistance’, because the scenes of torture by the Nazis were giving me nightmares. The hangman sounds very much like Albert Pierrepoint, another ‘nice’ hangman, if there is cut a thing. Sounds like an interesting read though, if you like that sort of thing. Amazingly, I managed to submit a story to Mslexia’s short story competition – the first time – but also wondered whether I’d wasted £10 the minute I hit the Paypal button. Too late now!

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  2. julielees

    That should read “if there is ‘such’ a thing”, by the way. Think my computer as become self-aware and writing that it likes.

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  3. charliebritten Post author

    Good luck with Mslexia! I was really disappointed not to have done it, but there was really no point.

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  4. julielees

    Thanks for that. If my computer isn’t sentient, I must be having an illiterate day. ‘As become’ instead of ‘has’ and ‘that’ instead of ‘what’? Must remember not to send off any work today until literate brain is back online.

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  5. charliebritten Post author

    See my last sentence, about the W key? I’ve just spent £200 on getting new hard drive installed, and now there’s something else wrong with my machine! My students tell me I should have thrown it away and bought a new one!

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