On Pain of Death: A Sumach Mystery.


288 pages
ISBN 978-1-894549-66-0
DDC C813'.6






Reviewed by Lisa Arsenault

Lisa Arsenault is a high-school English teacher who is involved in
several ministry campaigns to increase literacy.


This complex murder mystery is set against the turbulence and anarchy of occupied France during World War II. Juliet is a Canadian studying in Paris who joins the French Resistance to help smuggle Jews out of the country. Gabrielle is a country wife living quietly on the outskirts of a small village in rural France, whose husband’s wrongful execution for the murder of a German soldier catapults her into the Resistance.


The life stories of these two young women are skilfully woven together as they encounter some of the same people and situations in their clandestine operations, their fates entwining until, ultimately, they meet, and help, each other. Juliet discovers who the actual murderer was, thus posthumously exonerating Gabrielle’s husband, and Gabrielle saves Juliet’s life twice. Third-person narrative alternates between Juliet and Gabrielle, allowing the reader their two perspectives on events.


The impulsiveness, the random meetings and partings, and the never-look-beyond-today mindset of that era are faultlessly captured by the author. We meet numerous individuals for a short time before they pass out of the narrative, either through war-generated death or the onward rush of events. Budding romances are cut off and then rekindled again with other people in circumstances that would never have occurred or been countenanced in peacetime. The three central murders, played out against the larger carnage of war, keep the reader guessing to the end.


Added to the classic murder mystery format and the cataclysm of world war are believable dialogue, sympathetic handling of characters (a conflicted German officer), and descriptive language. Evocative similes include this thumbnail sketch of a village baker: “The old woman was like the bread she sold, tall and thin as a baguette, with a hard crust but a soft centre.” On the other hand, the author does not shrink from describing war in all its ugliness: the accounts of Gestapo torture and their reprisals against saboteurs and ordinary people alike are detailed and harrowing. The reader feels “the weight of testimony” that Juliet records in her diary.


Rehner, John., “On Pain of Death: A Sumach Mystery.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 12, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/26831.