Written by Oliver Poetzsch
Published by Mariner Books
Review by Carole Mertz
The Poisoned Pilgrim is the fourth volume in Poetzsch’s Hangman’s Daughter Series. The book depicts for citizens of the twenty-first century the duties of a seventeenth century hangman, a kind of counterpart to the chief-of-police in a contemporary town. (A seventeenth century hangman is feared, but not entirely respected, and deemed a member of a lower class of society.)
Poetzsch’s hangman is, nevertheless, a man of character and imagination, while his daughter Magdalena is determined, impetuous, and curious, characteristics which lead her into serious difficulties. She and her husband Simon, the Schongau “bathhouse surgeon,” have left their home to undertake a pilgrimage. They travel by foot from Schongau in southern Bavaria toward Lake Ammer. After crossing the lake in a small boat, they arrive in the mountainous forest beneath the Andechs Monastery during a violent thunderstorm. They wish to give thanks in the Monastery for the safety and well-being of their two young children, left at home with The Hangman.
When a robbery occurs, most of the pilgrims are unaware of the stir this causes among the monks and the abbot. An unexplained murder also occurs in the Prologue, but readers must wait many pages for its explanation.
I loved the unraveling of this rather complicated tale. I loved the glimpses it offered of life in an earlier century, within the Bavarian territory where I had once resided. (I’m a classical musician. Events similar to those recorded in this novel, I mused, may have occurred at a time when Bach, or his mentor Buxtehude, were instructing organ students in German towns not far distant from Andechs.)
A brief history of Baroque music composed in an era contemporaneous to the actions of this novel, describes the following, “To this tradition (i.e. of composing chorale preludes and fugues) must be added the instinctive German love of order, manifested still today in so many aspects of German life.” The substance of The Poisoned Pilgrim reflects that love of order.
It is Jacob Kuisl, the protagonist, who ultimately solves the murders which occur, and who ardently strives to protect his offspring. It is noteworthy that Poetzsch is himself a descendant of the Kuisl family.
Another area of interest drew me to this particular novel, i.e., the author’s references to Salzburg University. I learned the University formally opened as a Benedictine institution in 1622. The contemporary Salzburg University had not reopened as a theological center until two years past the year when I was a music student in that town.
The author’s descriptions of the territory rang true for me as did the sometimes crude manner of speaking in some of the dialogue exchanges, similar perhaps to the down-to-earth speech employed by Luther in his “Table Talk.” For example, the Schongau Hangman hurls this speech at his three-year-old grandson: “Damn it! Keep your dirty paws away from my sacred crucibles before I send you back to bed without breakfast.” We wonder how we can accept this hangman as one of the heroes in this tale, but later we witness his great love for this child.
Since the Andechs Monastery still exists, and since this location is the area of Poetzsch’s upbringing, we may well trust his descriptions of the environs. Furthermore, as evidence of his diligent research, Poetzsch modeled his chronicle on Willibald Mathaeser’s Andechser Chronik. Mathaeser was a cellarer at the Monastery for years and steeped himself in the history of the Monastery.
Visitors still make pilgrimages to the Monastery. However their desire for the double bock beer brewed in the Andechs Tavern since 1455 and still served today in the Monastery gardens, may overpower their desire to pray in the chapel.
Though I jumped in media res (by starting with the fourth volume of the series), I now plan to read the entire series. The current volume is translated by Lee Chadeayne, editor in chief of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) Newsletter.
Carole Mertz has published reviews in The Conium Review, The Long Ridge Writers Website, The Christian Communicator, and at Page and Spine. Her chapter on writing tips was selected for inclusion in the forthcoming Writing after Retirement, Carol Smallwood and Christine Redman-Waldeyer, Editors, (Scarecrow Press). Recently Mertz won recognition in the 4th Worldwide Intergenerational Storytelling Contest.