Friday, November 27, 2015

The Dark Monk (Hangman's Daughter #2)

It's been a few years since I read the first book in this series* (also while on vacation--there seems to be a pattern, here), but it was quite easy to slip right back into the universe of Jakob Kuisl, hangman in a small Bavarian village.


Reading books in translation is always tricky, because it's not often clear whether prose issues are due to the original text or the translator's capabilities.  The Dark Monk limped along on sophomoric sentences, struggling to create tension and a sense of menace but succeeding only in sounding supremely silly.

Sorry, I was having an attack of alliterationitis.  The scourge of librarians.  We cannot help it, and our friends and family members must suffer.

But I digress.  Mostly because I'd rather not think about this silly mess of a book, but then, I ask myself the all-encompassing question: WWJD?  No, not Jesus.  Jeeves.  What would Jeeves do?  He'd arrange the oh-so-British stiff upper lip and get on with things, no matter how silly they are.  So, stiff upper lip, Jeeves, and here we go.

In the first book, Jakob Kuisl saves the local midwife from being executed as a witch, due to his sleuthing prowess, knowledge of herbs, and ability to read.


I didn't particularly mind it at the time, but now I realize that Kuisl is simply a grown up special snowflake.  The guy can do everything, and while many other popular literary characters have similarly wide-ranging talents (think Sherlock Holmes), the era in which they live is more conducive to that sort of extensive learning.  Kuisl lives in Schongau around 1660.  How did he learn to read?  Did he just teach himself Latin?  I mean, that would have been easier had he spoken, oh, you know, a Romance language.  But Jakob speaks German.  Unless, when he served in the army as a super-awesome battalion leader against the rampaging Swedes (I cannot, here, imagine Swedes rampaging around anything, but that's my 21st century mindset speaking.  But religious conflicts like the Thirty Years War made even the Swedes vicious), someone decided to teach him how to read.  

The plot, if it can be so termed, of The Dark Monk consists of situations strung together by such improbabilities as Kuisl being literate or the young doctor of the town, Simon, believing in germs.  And the overall tone of the book is very Dan Brown conspiracy-o-rama!  Evil, secret sects within the Church.  Forbidden rites.  Killer monks!  TEMPLAR TREASURE!!!


What is it with the Templars, anyway?  Is it that there aren't any of them left, so writers feel free to use them as a fictional springboard?  It's easy to cast a group as villains when there aren't any of them left to protest.  Personally, I wouldn't want to find "the Templar's secret" or the "Templar treasure," since the whole lot of them were mercenaries of the worst kind, using a so-called Holy War in order to turn a profit.

But Templars were definitely the secret group du jour when this book was written, so alas, we must suffer the mythos of the Templars yet again.

The events in The Dark Monk take place about a year after the first book.  Magdalena and Simon are still sort-of-dating.  I qualify that statement because a) supposedly they can never marry because, as the hangman's daughter, Magdalena can only marry another hangman and b) Simon is a cad and flirts with all the girls because he can't be without attention for one second.  I strongly dislike Simon and I don't see why or how Magdalena is in love with him.  Is it simply because she knows they can't be together?  Because he's got cool hats and fancy doublets?

Jakob, Magdalena's father, tolerates the young medicus coming around, but only just.  There are bigger fish to fry: highwaymen have all but shut down trade between Schongau and the surrounding cities, and oh yes, the priest in the next town over was found dead: poisoned à la Aristotle.  This priest was hiding a Deep Dark Secret (the kind that needs to be capitalized for emphasis): there is a Templar tomb hidden beneath the old church.

You're thinking, "So what?"  So, this is Germany.  The Reformation and ensuing war have wreaked havoc on everything, the Catholics and the Protestants hate each other, and Catholicism holds part of the country in its firm grip, still.  The discovery of a Templar tomb would drag out all those nasty stories about how the Templars were more powerful than the Pope.  The Catholic Church disavowed the Templars, and the Catholic Church opposes the Protestant movement, and you all know how the old saying goes: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.  Someone in the German Church felt the need to cover up the tomb by murdering a priest.  But no one fools Jakob Kuisl!

He immediately understands that the priest was killed with hemlock-laced doughnuts,


and soon Magdalena, who is apprenticing as a midwife, and her loverboy Simon get involved.  I'm not entirely sure why.  Jakob is actually, despite all of his anachronistic abilities, the most interesting character, while the other two dither around and get themselves into serious trouble.  Jakob notices that with his dying breath (of course), the priest managed to point to a clue that gets everyone down in the Templar tomb.

But hark!  There are dangerous assassins afoot: black-robed monks whose leader douses himself with a sickening amount of violet perfume.  Romantic complications ensue when the priest's attractive and cosmopolitan younger sister, Benedikta, arrives.  Simon, being a total scumball, starts following Katarina around like a sad and desperate puppy, yet wonders why Magdalena is angry with him.  Surely the man is addled!

What follows is a silly Templar treasure hunt story set in 17th century Bavaria.  Everybody makes excessively stupid decisions, like Jakob thinking it would be completely safe for Magdalena to take a river barge by herself to another city.  They then wait a week before thinking, "Hm, perhaps something has happened to her!"  Some parents you are.

Meanwhile, Simon and Benedikta solve the puzzles left by the Templar master that might lead to the Templar's treasure!  Yay!  Unfortunately, everyone is pretty darn stupid.  I mean, I know most people couldn't read during this time period, but Simon understands Latin, and Jakob knows how to read.  That's pretty good.  But I'll give you an example of the stop-and-go style of their proceedings.

In the beginning of the book, Jakob and Simon find a marble plaque inscribed with a Latin passage: "And I will tell my two witnesses to prophesy.  And when they have ended their testimony, the beast that arises from the depths will fight, conquer, and kill them."  Our two detectives look at each other, bewildered, and say "What a confusing rant"!  "It doesn't make any sense to me."  However, they've definitely heard it before.  Would this have been something that the Counter-Reformation Church would have taught?  It's got a nice apocalyptic and mystic ring to it, you know.  It takes several more chapters for one of them to figure out it's from the book of Revelation!  Back chez Kuisl, Simon has an epiphany (finally!) and asks for a Bible.  Here, I'm a bit confused as well.  My Western European studies focused on France, so the effects of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the Germanic States aren't exactly my forte.  Yes, Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, and the Gutenberg Press made the Bible more widely available than it had previously been.  However, in response, the Catholic Church banned many translations of the Bible.  I found myself wondering, "Would a Catholic hangman in mid-17th century Bavaria own a German Bible?"  If anyone can answer that for me, I'd be most appreciative.

Anyway, Simon is able to locate the exact chapter and verse in Revelation, suggesting that he has read the Bible, and identifies the witnesses as Enoch and Elijah (a common interpretation going back to the early Church).  How did he know nothing about this and then become an expert?  It's very pat.

That's basically how the investigation goes: cluelessness, and then a spark of not-so-believable inspiration.

At the end, the whole conspiracy made me want to giggle and then cry that I had spent time on this.  I've gone back and looked at my early review of The Hangman's Daughter, and I was really generous.  I wonder if I'll pick up the next book to see if things get any better.  Knowing me, I probably will.

This is diverting only in that it's basically a modern-day thriller plunked down in post-Reformation Germany and decorated with the trappings of the day.




2 comments:

  1. I like historical mysteries and own quite a few, but I think I may stick to Ellis Peters after reading about this!

    By the way, if you ever want to read a positive portrayal of a Templar - and I agree they were generally scum and filthy with it(bathing was considered evil!) - I recommend Pagan's Crusade by Catherine Jinks. You've probably read it, but just in case...

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  2. Argh, you've reminded me that I need to seek out more Brother Cadfael books! I haven't read Pagan's Crusade, but Catherine Jinks is awesome :D

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