Oliver Pötzsch’s third thriller in his Hangman’s Daughter series, The Beggar King: A Hangman’s Daughter Tale, again taps into his ancestry.
Where did the idea for the series come from?
I am a descendant of the Kuisls, a dynasty of executioners who lived in a small part of Bavaria near the Alps. There were 14 executioners in all, the last of whom died in 1807. When we kids got bored on mountain hikes, my grandparents would go into great detail about them. When I was in my early 20s, I visited a distant relative in Munich and found that he had a huge archive of family documents. I then went to Schongau, where the executioners had lived. Talking to herbalists also helped me understand 17th-century Bavaria. That research led me to make radio and TV documentaries about the Kuisls before trying to use them fictionally.
What was your biggest problem?
Making Jakob Kuisl sympathetic. That’s why in the first book I start by showing Jakob as a boy watching his father executing someone, rather than open with Jakob himself taking a life. It’s strange to say it, but state-authorized torture actually constituted some progress in criminal justice. Before the 16th century, there was essentially vigilante justice, and the move to require confessions of guilt before execution, even if provided under duress, was better than that. Given the abolition of the death penalty in Europe, my family and friends were positive that I couldn’t pull off a series centered on an executioner, so the books’ success (even if it took a while to find a U.S. publisher) has been very gratifying.
What has your family’s reaction to the books been?
Everyone else in the family’s a doctor these days, so I’m sort of the black sheep as a writer. Ironically, despite the violence in the books, I can’t stand the sight of blood, so medicine was never an option for me.
Why the 17th century?
I had several centuries worth of Kuisls to choose from. These books start after the end of the 30-Years’ War; that war was devastating, with only a third of the German population surviving. It was an apocalyptic time; soldiers returned home to find they no longer had families and became highwaymen. That development in turn made it a peak time for hangings. It was also a transformative time in German society, as the incredible loss of life led many to turn away from religion and look to science for answers. I was surprised at how bad things were at this time. I came across diaries describing people eating people, which inspired some of the Grimm fairy tales we’re all familiar with.