Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Entertaining historical mysteries in The Hangman's Daughter series

From The Week of February 25, 2013

As much as the well-heeled would have us think otherwise, society runs thanks to dirty work. From glittering skyscrapers to speeding trains, from internet searches to life-saving medical equipment, countless men and women had to lay those bricks and dig those tunnels, unspool those undersea cables and test those machines, knowing that failure would, at best, cost people their lives and, at worst, undermine society's faith in the virtues of civilization. It is easy for us to forget these truths. For the souls who labor to keep our streets safe, our supermarkets stocked and our houses electrified are largely invisible, their efforts unheralded by a world far more fixated on the feats of the extraordinary than the toils of the masses. The efforts of millions to make the human world go round... This is a truth as relevant now as it has been at any point in the history of agricultural man and it is one explored with delight and darkness in Mr. Potzsch's entertaining series.

Seventeenth-century Germany was a grim and savage place. Riven by the Thirty Years' War, an apocalyptic conflict that claimed the lives of millions while leading to the widespread disintegration of law and order, it was comprised of a series of fiefdoms at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. It laid claim to philosophers and universities, powerful armies and advancing technologies, and yet it was also consumed by the corrosive fire of religious discord that, having erupted from the rise of Protestantism, had spent the last hundred years washing across much of civilized Europe. But as much as the war's cost was monetarily incalculable, it took an even graver price from the men who were paid or compelled to perpetrate its atrocities and from the families who were forced to bear its deprivations. Such scars are generational, wounds that cannot easily be forgotten.

Jakob Kuisl's entire life was defined by the great war. The son of a town hangman, he disavowed his family's calling for the life of a mercenary. But when, after many years of senseless slaughter, this life proved too dark for his soul, he took up his father's fallen sword and became an executioner. As much healer as killer, Kuisl is as skilled with poisons as curatives, as capable of breaking bones as mending them. And yet, though he and his brothers perform necessary services for the people, they are viewed with suspicion and disrespect by the communities that pay them, communities that impose upon the hangmen a dishonor emanating from their own shame. Despite the obvious injustice, there's nothing Kuisl or his like can do about this disregard except live with honor and do what must be done.

Home from the war, circumstances conspire to keep Kuisl busy. For not only does his hometown require his services, but murder seems to follow him wherever he goes. Devils and ghosts, priests and traitors, stalk his steps and those of his fiery daughter who herself is enchained by the hangman's life. Together, they must endeavor to live free in a world that scorns them, all while meting out some kind of justice in a world that has been without it for so long it might not even recognize its righteous glow.

Though far from masterpieces of fiction, the novels of The Hangman's Daughter are entertaining fair from a promising German author. Translated into English and sold through an amazon imprint, each of the collections stories -- there are four to date -- follow the familiar mystery model, kicked off by a death, often gruesome, that the heroes then proceed to solve over the next several hundred pages. Though this formula is, by now, quite wrote, the deep-seated historical flavor of Potzsch's work elevates the series out of the mundane and into the engagingly foreign as our familiar, modern moralities and customs are thrown aside for a world rooted in gods and superstition.

This is undoubtedly the series' greatest virtue. For though its three core characters -- Kuisl, the bearish and brooding hangman; Magdalena, his stubborn and tempestuous daughter; and Simon, her diminutive but devoted admirer -- are interesting, if somewhat predictable, it is the world that mesmerizes. For though religion is still prevalent in the 21st century, it is a faith confined largely to the church. Science has compelled Christianity to largely withdraw in defeat from the battlefield of society, government, philosophy and especially medicine, leaving our days to be defined by data, by logic, by facts. The opposite is true in Potzsch's conception of 17th-century Germany the society of which is almost entirely subsumed by religion. Every mystery and every murder, every insult and every dispute, is viewed through the lens of faith which, unfortunately, allows many of the men and women raised in this time to seize upon God as an easy answer. Strange markings on the backs of children? It must be witchcraft. Women succumbing to fever and moments of madness? It must be the devil. snap judgements are made because they can be, because there is nothing like science to stand up to these unreasoned conclusions, to refute them with researched truths.

But though the series succeeds in its wish to entertain, it falls short of excellence. For Potzsch is far too captivated by masterminding Kuisl into a 17th-century detective to actually show us the man's occupation. Rarely do we actually see Kuisl perform his duties, let alone with anything other than supreme reluctance which smacks to this reader like an author unwilling to sully his hero with even a whiff of injustice. Strange, really, for Potzsch is quite content to bestow upon Kuisl a savage backstory, but this too is glimpsed only through faded recollection and not the fullness of Potzsch's dark prose. A similar criticism could be leveled at Magdalena, the eponymous hangman's daughter if, that is, she was relevant enough to bother with criticism. The woman may be charmingly self-possessed, but she is rarely anything more than a device for the author to advance the story. We're never truly made to feel the chafing of the constricted life she is forced to lead.

Entertaining work. These are fun mysteries to blow through on a weekend. However, they suffer from the plain fact that others have done better. The inevitable comparisons with Ariana Franklin and the like do not flatter The Hangman's Daughter. (3/5 Stars)

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