THE BEGGAR KING:
A Hangman's Daughter Tale
By Oliver Potzsch ; translated by Lee Chadeayne
Houghton Mifflin, 2013, c.2010 ($18.00)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
Germany, 1637. In the middle of the Thirty Years War, bands of renegade soldiers took time out from the battle to pillage isolated villages, destroying everything they can't steal, killing most of the inhabitants and kidnapping the most desirable women. In one of those unfortunate villages, a particularly vicious band of men, including three brothers, performed their usual violence, leaving with some livestock, a few pitiful treasures, and a lovely woman with thick eyebrows.
1662. Jacob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, gets a letter from his brother-in-law in Regensburg telling him his sister is terribly ill. The man begs Jacob to come at once to save her. Like all other hangmen, Jacob is as skilled in healing as he is in causing injuries. He gathers his medicines and sets off for the city. When he arrives, he discovers that he is too late, his sister is dead, and Jacob is arrested for her murder. He knows he has been set up, but has no idea who is responsible. Could it be someone from his past...someone he thought long dead?
Back in Schongau, Kusl's daughter Magdalena is having problems of her own. Because one of the hangman's duties is to clear the dead animals and human waste from the streets, she has to cover for her father, and she is knee-deep in some very unpleasant debris. A friend and mentor is being accused of the death of a pregnant maid, and Magdalena must help her prove otherwise. She is in love with Simon, the town doctor's son, a love forbidden by the strict caste system of the time, and she can't bear to break off the relationship.
Magdalena convinces Simon that their only hope is to run away and start over in Regensburg, perhaps working in her aunt's bath house. When they get there, they are horrified to learn that Jacob is in jail undergoing torture to force his confession to murder.
Jacob, Magdalena and Simon embark on a perilous course to find the true killer and save their own lives, aided by some unlikely characters. A drunken Italian nobleman, the Beggar King, prostitutes, city officials, and others lend a hand, but it is not always clear which side they're really on.
This is the third A Hangman's Daughter Tale. It is rich in historical, societal, and cultural detail, including the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly characteristics of life in seventeenth century Germany. The writing is excellent, and the mystery plot is intricate, keeping the reader guessing who done it. I highly recommend this fascinating book.
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