On Tuesday, December 16, at 2 pm on BookPeople’s third floor, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club will discuss Oliver Pötzsch’s historical crime novel The Beggar King, the first installment in his Hangman’s Daughter series, set in seventeenth century Bavaria. Last month, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club discussed Janice Hamrick’s novel Death on Tour with a call-in from the author herself. Next month, on January 20, we will read Death in the Andes, a detective novel from Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel-prize winning Peruvian author known for his lavish settings, lyrical writing and violent plots.
The Beggar King follows the Kuisls, a family of hangmen, as they work to solve a murder and preserve their family against the backdrop of a Bavaria only recently emerged from the Thirty Years War. As the novel begins, Magdalena, the hangman’s daughter, meets with Simon, her doctor paramour, to lament the fact that their widely differing stations in life prevent their union. Meanwhile, her father, Jakob Kuisl, hangman and healer to the town of Schongau, heads to Regensburg to help his sister, recently fallen ill. Upon his arrival, the hangman learns that his sister has, in fact, fallen victim to another fate, and Jakob soon finds himself in jail for several murders and at the mercy of a mysterious inquisitor who appears to want revenge against Kuisl for reasons stretching back to the war.
Magdalena and Simon decide to run away to Regensberg and make a new life for themselves, away from the strictures of their incompatible places in the town’s hierarchy. Instead, they encounter murder, conspiracy, poison, a flamboyant Italian diplomat, and the greatest of all seventeenth century fears, fire; all in their quest to rescue the hangman of Schongau before he can be framed for another’s crime. Like the best historical crime fiction, the crimes, investigations, and pursuits of the novel all feel firmly grounded within the historical context of the novel. Pötzsch crafts a murderous plot both fiendishly complicated and well within the purview of the the main characters, as amateur detectives, to solve.
The story takes place soon after the end of the 30 Years’ War, referred to in the novel as the Great War, and the incredible brutality present in that conflict and the traumatic resonance of the war in memory and landscape some years later lend the book a modern feel to its early modern context.
The Regensburg and Bavarian countryside of the novel, however, should not be taken to be full only of broken men and women, sighing about the war. Pötzsch’s Regensburg is dynamic; home to philosophers, epicureans, madams, brewmasters, and guilds of all kinds; a living, breathing, evolving portrait of the joys and sorrow of early modern life. The maladies, misery and stench of their town does not seem to phase the characters – they can always go bathe in the river when they become too covered in garbage, and sometimes the victims of plague or fire are the people the town most wants to see go.
The Kuisls, through their position a little outside of society and with the help of their untamable natures, serve as an excellent set of viewpoints for a modern reader to gain access to the 1600s in a way that feels modern but is firmly grounded in historical context. The Kuisl family has more agency than many of their seventeenth century counterparts, given their simultaneous specialization in murder and healing (a difficult combination of talents for any town to easily replace). Magdalena and Jakob thus have more leeway when it comes to minor violations of their town’s moral compass. The Kuisls also have quick defensive reactions gained from their status as pariahs and objects of superstitious fear from the townspeople. They have the wit to dismiss accusations of witchcraft without causing offense and the wherewithal to flee a bad situation before they can become the targets of an angry mob.
Oliver Pötzsch has a special connection to the Kuisl family beyond any academic or literary interest. Pötzsch traces his ancestry to a long line of Bavarian hangmen, and when he records the saga of the Kuisls and their exploits, he writes part crime novel, part genealogical history. Pötzsch has done his research, even including a travel guide to Regensburg detailing landmarks mentioned in the novel that are still in Regensburg today. Pötzsch has, in the end, not only written a fantastic detective novel, but also a love letter to a city and to a family.
The Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets the third Tuesday of each month at 2 pm. Please join us Tuesday, December 16th, as we discuss The Beggar King, by Oliver Pötzsch. Copies are available on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. All book clubs are free and open to the public, and book club members receive 10% off of their purchase of their monthly book club title.