Jacob Kuisl, a public executioner, called a hangman, lives in a small Bavarian town during the 1600s. Although considered a necessary official, Jacob and his family are ostracized by the townspeople and it is expected that his offspring will marry the children of executioners in nearby towns as no one wants to be part of a hangman’s family. When a young boy’s body is pulled from the river with a crude tattoo on his back, the town’s midwife, who is a friend of Jacob, is arrested and accused of witchcraft. Jacob places her in jail in hopes of keeping her safe from a mob that seems intent upon killing her. Jacob and his friend Simon, a young physician who is considered a dandy by the townspeople, take it upon themselves to conduct their own investigation into the child’s death and prove the midwife innocent. When another child’s body is found with the same tattoo, Jacob is pressured to torture the midwife to obtain a confession at soon as possible which he puts off by giving the midwife a concoction to sedate her. But politics are at play in this small town and it seems preordained that the midwife will burn for murders she did not commit.
The mystery here is a good one, although the plot, which begins quite interestingly, lags and sputters out. The hangman, who supposedly is intent upon proving the innocence of the midwife, spends most of his time sitting around contemplating or discussing the mystery with Simon. He never seems to be in any sort of hurry to find the murderer although the midwife’s days are numbered. Simon plays the dandy well and his relationship with the hangman’s daughter carries no chemistry at all. In that regard, the hangman’s daughter is only peripherally part of the story; she seems to have no real significance. It could be that the book’s slow pace and amateurish writing (at times) are due to translation, but this version does not live up to the hype.