“The Beggar King” is a tale of late 17th century Germany, mostly Regensburg, and it offers a little of everything.
Its central characters are Jakob Kuisl, the hangman in the Alpine village of Shonghau; his headstrong adult daughter, Magdalena; her beau, Simon; Silvio Cantarini, an emissary from Venice who is quite the ladies’ man, and, of course, Regensburg’s beggar king, Nathan the Wise. All of these characters, and most of the others, are richly drawn and, courtesy of the author’s considerable skills, filled with surprises.
In the summer of 1662, Jakob, the hangman, leaves his village to attend to his younger sister, who lives in Regensburg and, who, a letter informs him, is on her deathbed.
On his journey to Regensburg, Jakob gets the sense he is being followed but could never confirm it.
In any case, his sister isn’t dying but she is quite dead when Jakob finds her and her husband. Their throats have been slit and Jakob finds himself embroiled in a plot he doesn’t understand.
He is immediately arrested, charged with their murders and hauled off to Regensburg’s prison.
There he is to be tortured by a peer, Regensburg’s hangman, until Jakob admits his guilt, at which point the law says he can be executed.
In the town prison, he is tormented by the names of places scratched on the walls of his cell that bring to mind his years as a mercenary in the Thirty Years War, a war whose wounds have not yet healed.
In the meantime, Magdalena, who as the hangman’s daughter faces a dismal future cleaning trash and sewage from the streets of Shonghau, and Simon, a doctor’s son who partied enough to flunk out of a reputable medical school, run off together. They, too, go to Regensburg, where they quickly learn of Jakob’s trouble and set about trying to find out what really happened to Jakob’s sister and brother-in-law.
They find refuge in the Whale, a tavern and inn recommended by Karl Gessner, the Regensburg’s head Danube raftsman, who is an individual with a dark past.
At the Whale, Magdalena and Simon meet the dashing Silvio, a Venetian nobleman who also is more than he appears, and enlist his assistance.
And, because Simon, a “medicus,” had briefly helped a Regensburg beggar with a medical problem, he and Magdalena acquire an entire population of allies: Regensburg’s community of beggars.
After being led into long abandoned underground sections of Regensburg, they meet Nathan the Wise, king of the beggars.
He promises them whatever help he and his friends can give them if Simon will tend to the many physical ailments that afflict the beggars.
This beggar class, ever-present though almost unseen by Regensburg’s society, see and learn just about everything.
Complicating the drama is the growing struggle between the patricians and tradesmen who want a greater share of power as well as European politics. Adding color to the story is Regensburg itself.
Indeed, this important city on the Danube River is one of the characters of the story, with its superstitious Christian population, its taverns filled with laborers, derelicts and prostitutes and its general lack of sanitation.
Though a learned monk speaks of Bacon, Hobbes and Descartes, it’s a primitive age, and the plague’s return is ever in people’s minds.
The author, Oliver Potzsch, has worked on Bavarian radio and was a screenwriter for Bavarian public television.
He is a descendant of the Kuisls, the line of executioners that inspired this novel as well as others in what has become “The Hangman’s Daughter Series.”
If the other books approach the intrigue of “The Beggar King,” they’ll be well worth reading.
Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor and a Manhattan resident.