Top positive review
A historical fiction beach read, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies
Reviewed in the United States on September 19, 2019
Oliver Pötzsch's The Hangman's Daughter was a pleasant little surprise - a piece of historical fiction that wore its research smoothly, using it all in service of a solid thriller that could easily appeal to a modern audience. Add into that Pötzsch's own connections to the characters - the titular hangman, Jacob Kuisl, is Pötzsch's ancestor - and what seemed like a pretty relentless Amazon marketing campaign and you've got all the ingredients for the sort of book that could easily be a runaway hit. As it was, The Hangman's Daughter's pleasures were smaller in scale, and held back a little bit by some of the very modern characterizations that crept into the book, but none of it kept the book from being a lot of fun to read.
The Dark Monk, the second book in the Hangman's Daughter series (despite the much smaller role of the daughter in the series compared to her father and the young town doctor), does a lot of what made the first book so much fun to read. Pötzsch's evocation of 17th-century Bavaria is wonderful, immersing you in a world that feels immaculately researched and realistic without ever grinding the story to a halt to show off the details that he's learned in his diggings. And the plot is undeniably a blast, taking the form of a treasure hunt through the religious sites of the era in pursuit of the lost treasure of the Knights Templar, all while being pursued by members of a mysterious religious order. Oh, it's all a bit into the realm of the ridiculous, but Pötzsch makes it work by committing so wholly to it and adding in his own humor and sensibility to the mix, reminding us all that this is a fun series, not a grimy historical re-enactment.
And, of course, there's the compelling character of Jacob Kuisl, the town executioner and surprisingly well-read and learned man. Kuisl is Pötzsch's ancestor, so it's no surprise that he has some Mary Sue tendencies - he's always head of his time, wiser than the superstitious townfolk, ready to give mercy when he deems fit, and so forth. But by marrying all of those qualities to someone who also tortures and executes people for a living, Pötzsch undercuts some of those worries, letting Kuisl be both the brilliant Sherlock Holmes analog and a bit of an antihero. Does he sometimes get to be a bit too smart for the book and for my taste, feeling so much like the hero that you wish he had some more flaws? Sure, a bit, and I think this book doesn't quite steer into his executioner job as well as the first book did. But Kuisl remains an intriguing character, and by separating him from his protege and letting the two characters have their own threads - the young doctor hunting the treasure, while Kuisl deals with some wandering bandits who seem to have too much information about secret trading routes - Pötzsch is able to cover more ground and develop each a bit on their own terms.
None of which is to say that The Dark Monk is flawless. The treasure plot gets a bit more absurd as it goes along, and whether it goes into the point of silliness will vary by the reader - for me, it felt like a fun B-movie at times, and I say that as a fan of B-movies. More annoying is Pötzsch's constant trick of omitting key conversations with narration that simply tells us that a character was shocked to hear something, or knew that it confirmed their theory, and delaying that revelation until later; it always feels like a cheap stall or an easy tease, and while it works once or twice, after a while, it feels like a crutch.
But for all of that, I enjoyed The Dark Monk enough to keep me enjoying it and excited to see how it unfolded. There are better thriller writers, undeniably, but the combination of historical time period, interesting characters, and lurid plot all work together to give you a historical fiction beach read of a sort - and sometimes that's all you want.