It’s 1662 and the Schongau hangman, Jakob Kuisl, is travelling to Regensburg to visit his sister Lisbeth who has sent him a message saying she is seriously ill. Arriving in the city, Jakob discovers that he has walked into a trap: his sister and her husband are found dead in their bathhouse and Jakob is arrested on suspicion of murder. Imprisoned and tortured, he awaits his execution in one of the city’s dungeons.
Jakob’s daughter, Magdalena, vows to help her father and sets off to Regensburg with her lover, doctor’s son Simon Fronwieser. As they begin to investigate, Magdalena and Simon meet a variety of characters including a Venetian ambassador, a raftsman, a brewmaster – and the city’s community of beggars and thieves, led by Nathan the Wise, the ‘Beggar King’ of the title. They must decide who can and cannot be trusted and come up with a plan to rescue Magdalena’s father before it’s too late.
The Beggar King is the third in a series of historical mystery/thrillers following the adventures of 17th century Bavarian hangman Jakob Kuisl and his daughter Magdalena. The first two in the series are The Hangman’s Daughter and The Dark Monk; I haven’t read either of these but starting with the third book was not really a problem as this was a complete story in itself and not dependent on things that had happened in the previous books. If I had read the others I might have got more out of the story, as there were relationships that had obviously been developing over the course of the series, but I was still able to follow what was happening easily enough.
There were things that I liked about The Beggar King and the fast-paced, action-packed story did keep me entertained, but I don’t think I will be looking for any of the others in the series. The problem I had with the book was the language used in the dialogue. Would people in the 1660s really have called each other ‘lowlife drifters’ and would they have said something like “Just my luck that I wind up in the hands of a quack like you”? A lot of the terms and phrases that were used just sounded wrong to me. I’m aware that the book has been translated into English from its original German, so it’s hard to tell how much of this is down to the original text and how much to the translation, but when I read historical fiction I like to feel that I’ve been transported back in time and because of the dialogue I did not get that feeling at all with this book. As well as the language being too modern, the way some of the characters thought and behaved also felt too modern and I found it particularly difficult to believe in Magdalena as a realistic 17th century woman.
What I did enjoy was all the information we are given on the living conditions and medical history of the time, things I always find interesting to read about. Magdalena’s lover Simon is a ‘medicus’ (physician) and she herself is training to be a midwife. Jakob Kuisl also has some medical skills – it seems that the town hangman did much more than just carry out executions and was also involved in operating the instruments of torture during the interrogation of prisoners, and ironically, was responsible for tending the prisoners’ injuries after he had finished torturing them. In this way, the hangman gained a good knowledge of human anatomy and physiology.
I also loved the setting and the descriptions of the Bavarian village of Schongau and the city of Regensburg on the River Danube where most of the action takes place. I haven’t read much, if anything, about Germany in the 17th century and I enjoyed the author’s note at the end which takes us on a journey through Regensburg and tells us more about some of the places mentioned in the novel.
Inappropriate dialogue is something that often irritates me in historical fiction, but I know not everyone will be bothered by it. Looking at other reviews of The Beggar King, it does seem that the general opinion is overwhelmingly positive and a fourth book is already on its way!
I received a review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley