A few years ago I cruised along the Rhine-Danube waterway, visiting beautifully restored medieval towns. At the time I said they were probably made prettier for the tourist trade than they had ever been in reality. For a more realistic view, read The Hangman’s Daughter, by Oliver Pötzsch.
The fictional town of Schongau smells of dung and slops. Our mild hero, Simon, hates to get his fashionable attire splashed by mud and by what people toss out their upstairs windows. His father became a doctor by roughly attending to wounded soldiers during the Thirty Years War and is proud of sending Simon to be educated as a doctor. Unhappily for Simon, his father distains new-fangled ideas. He particularly hates that Simon consults the Hangman, Jakob.
Every medieval town needed a hangman, who was socially ostracized and had to live apart from others. (I saw such a home, it was situated outside the town walls, but was nice enough.) Jakob is well versed in both torturing and healing; he is surreptitiously consulted by townspeople and collects expensive, newly published medical books.
Martha, the midwife, is also sought out for her stock of herbs and potions that treat more complaints than pregnancies. When her practice of giving shelter to orphans is tainted by malevolent shadows, an accusation of murder by witchcraft hurtles her into the town’s dank jail, where the Hangman is called to do his duty – gaining truth through torture.
However, Jakob is a contrary sort of fellow, and he knows that Martha is wholly innocent. As does Simon. As does Magdalena, the Hangman’s daughter. In Simon’s eyes Magdalena is delectable, with both brains and beauty. Sometimes in concert, and sometimes in conflict, the three problem-solvers seek clues and hypotheses to explain the children's murder to save Martha. Spoiling all their good work is the Devil, a being with a bone hand!