The Beggar King is the third volume in The Hangman's Daughter series of historical murder mysteries (following The Hangman's Daughter and The Dark Monk). Set in 17th century Bavaria, the novels center around Jakob Kuisl, the official torturer/executioner for the small, out-of-the-way village of Schongau. In each of the first two books, circumstances have compelled Kuisl to pursue a murderer, and to learn the truth behind the crime before he must take up his executioner's sword and administer the ultimate punishment. Kuisl is assisted in investigations by his friend, physician Simon Fronweiser, and Kuisl's spirited, 20-year-old daughter Magdalena. Despite strong disapproval from her father, who expects her to follow tradition and marry a hangman, Magdalena and Simon have been romantically involved for some time. These three unlikely protagonists are at the core of the series.
The Beggar King takes place mostly in the bustling city of Regensburg, where Kuisl has gone to visit his sister and her husband. Soon after he arrives, he is arrested on flimsy evidence for a gruesome double murder. Locked in the city dungeons, he finds himself at the mercy of Teuber, the Regensburg hangman. Complicating Kuisl's situation is a person he believes to be from his past, who torments Kuisl by dropping clues to his identity; but Kuisl cannot remember, and does not know what this person wants from him. With the tables turned on him, Kuisl does not know how he will manage to escape the same fate that he has dealt to so many others.
Two things drew me to this series, and remain consistent in The Beggar King: the realism that the author brings to the setting and to the life and trade of a 17th century hangman, and the well-crafted, compelling character of Jakob Kuisl. Pötzsch has done an impressive amount of research on the geographical locations and their history. He says in the postscript that Regensburg is his favorite city, and he even provides a lengthy guide to modern-day Regensburg, making note of landmarks that appear in the story. A map is included in the front pages, which I found myself referencing as I read. The detailed descriptions of Regensburg animate the city, making it feel almost like another character in the novel.
Based on a real person (see "Beyond the Book"), Jakob Kuisl is a complex character who is both believable and, even though he is an executioner, likable. He does not delight in the job he inherited from his father. At age 15, he tried to avoid his legacy by enlisting in the military during the Thirty-Years War-an event that becomes an important plot element in The Beggar King—but the negative experience of being a soldier resulted in his decision that the work of a hangman would be more honest. Pötzsch characterizes Kuisl as a man who can be both strong and smart, ruthless and compassionate, fearsome and loving. When he is reduced to the worst circumstances, we are able to see him as very human--vulnerable, frightened, and haunted by the past. Kuisl is the star here. By contrast, Simon and Magdalena are a bit two-dimensional, but they do provide comic relief. They do face danger, but Mag's schemes, the couple's bickering and their wacky adventures, provide a light-hearted contrast to the darker scenes involving Kuisl.
Unfortunately the narration is simplistic and often relies on exposition; it tends to tell the reader what happened in a dry, matter-of-fact manner, whereas I would prefer to "see" the dramatic action, and know the character's reactions and thoughts. This would have made for a more emotionally engaging story. The author also has an alternate way of referring to each character: Simon is "the medicus, "Magdalena is "the hangman's daughter," and Kuisl is "the hangman." But he overuses them, liberally peppering most pages with an alternation of the name and descriptive reference. It was very distracting for me, although some readers may not even notice it. Occasionally I was brought back to reality by non-period idioms or a cliché that stood out, such as: "cock-of-the-walk" (a nineteenth century expression), "...his voice [was] as solid and regular as a well-oiled clock," and "Nobody's going to listen to your cute little conspiracy theories!" I wish to note, however, that the book has been translated for American audiences from the original German, so translation issues could certainly be a factor in some of these problems.
The Beggar King is a book mainly suited for adults because it contains strong language and mature themes. However, compared to the previous books there is very little gore, even in the torture scenes. In spite of its flaws and seemingly morose premise, the novel proves to be an adventure, only mildly intense, and it will sometimes even elicit a laugh or smile. There are plenty of red herrings, plot complications, and the change of venue provides a cast of colorful characters to keep track of. (Fortunately, the author provides a list of Dramatis Personae at the beginning of the book!) While The Beggar King could be read as a stand-alone, the reader would be at a disadvantage in not knowing the characters' histories. A reader's opinion of the main characters might be negatively skewed by reading this one first. I recommend starting with The Hangman's Daughter to see if you find it appealing before moving on to this one.
This review is from the February 6, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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