Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch
Disclaimer: I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review. No other compensation was offered or requested.
The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early. When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot. The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis. Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.
As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school. The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people. He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.
But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees? The little men from Venice? Ancient pagan sacrifice? The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits? As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?
This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes. Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story. Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau. But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.
When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft. (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.) There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.
There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence. There’s some topical material: Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.
Content issues: In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story. Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.) Other hangmen are not so scrupulous. Classism is a constant issue. (This leads me to a translation quibble: while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)
Good: The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.
Not so good: Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.
Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.