Perfidia
by Elspeth McKendrick, historical (2007)
LoveSpell, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-505-52739-4


Elspeth McKendrick previously wrote two historical romances under the name Morag McKendrick Pippin. Perfidia sees this author continuing to use the early 20th century setting for her historical romantic suspenses and this book is easily her best and most gripping to date. Really, if you like reading historical romances set in a different era from the overdone 18th and 19th century England or Scotland, this one is for you. It is set in Germany in 1939. That's right, folks, our hero and heroine are in Germany right at the start of World War 2. As you may suspect, Perfidia is not going to be an easy read.

Blonde and beautiful, Sophie de Havilland fits the image of the Aryan ideal woman that the Führer idolizes, hence our British expatriate enjoys access to the inner circles of the upper crust society despite not being a local. Sophie at first admires the Nazis because under the rule of Adolf Hitler, Germany has risen from the ashes of poverty. However, when war breaks out in Poland and slowly spreads across Europe like a cancer, Sophie will have her idealistic nature torn apart mercilessly. Will she ever get out of Germany? Well, fortunately for her, early on a Sturmbannführer, Baron Karl von Richten, has asked her to pretend to be his mistress and move in with him so that he does not have to join the eugenics program implemented by the Führer. Karl is actually with a bunch of military officers plotting against Hitler, so he ends up being an unlikely ally of Sophie.

The romance is not the strongest in this story, but I don't think I can expect two people to stare into each other's eyes all day like besotted cows when there is a war taking place around them. Instead, I feel that Ms McKendrick has done a pretty good job describing as best as she can any romance that develops under such circumstances. What I must commend Ms McKendrick for is how she doesn't force the romance to move in an unrealistic pace given the situation the characters are in. Which is to say, there are no contrived situations to force the main characters to lose their clothes and jump into bed here. This is a thriller with romance.

And indeed, what a thrilling book this is. I've always found that the author has a knack for dragging me into her story and capturing my attention completely, and here she has really hit her stride as I really cannot put down this book at all while I am reading it. The author doesn't sugarcoat the rising nightmare that is the Third Reich. Sophie has no idea what she is getting into, for example, when she joins some friends (who also happen to be high-ranking military officers) for a "fun" trip to the nearby concentration camps. Let's just say that she learns the hard way that they really are not "re-educating" the Jews, Gypsies, and other "undesirable" people like she thought those camps are for. Even more brutal will be a shocking scene which forces Sophie to... well, I'm not going to reveal what that scene is (anyone who have read this book will know at once which scene I am talking about, though), but this chilling scene stays with me for days after I've finished this story.

Yet at the same time Ms McKendrick also does a great job letting me see how Sophie was initially convinced that the Third Reich wasn't so bad as there are many promises made by the Führer (such as free education for all) that make perfect sense. It is only when the war progresses and the regime becomes more tyrannical and inhuman that Sophie realizes what a mistake it has been not to flee with her aunt back to England early in this story.

Sophie, by the way, is amazing. She's very good at adapting to a situation. She may be out of her depths most of the time, but watch her bluff, lie, and deceive in order to extricate herself or her friends out of a sticky situation. This is not a damsel in distress in action - Sophie is a tough and smart cookie. She's a little naïve at times, but that's because she doesn't believe that human beings are capable of some of the things she encounters here. She can learn from her mistakes, though, and that is of course good.

Perfidia is an excellently paced story that has me at the edge of my seat most of the time as Ms McKendrick slowly builds up the sense of mounting claustrophobia and terror as Sophie feels the world around her slowly closing in. The romance provides a nice respite from the unrelenting fear and suspense permeating the story, but it never overwhelms the story. I think it is more accurate to say that Perfidia is more of Sophie's story than it is a romance between Sophie and Karl.

This book only falters in its late quarter when the author stumbles a little as she builds up the drama in the story. The characters begin to do things that seem rather stupid. For example, Karl and Sophie for some reason remain in Germany when they are really in trouble with the authorities, an act that only serves to put our two main characters through some gruesome scenes with the Gestapo. I also don't understand why Sophie refuses to return to England after all she has been through at the hands of the Gestapo - I'd think she will have a sense of perspective because any lingering hang-up over a cheating boyfriend should pale when compared to what she has been through in Germany. Also, I am not very happy with how the author puts Karl and Sophie in all kinds of trouble only to have help come from unexpected sources. Once or twice this happens, I'm fine with that, but when this pattern continues several times throughout the story, I can't help thinking that the author is wandering too close into deus ex machina territory.

Nonetheless, my obligatory list of nitpicks aside, I'm all for Perfidia. It has my two thumbs up - oh, and here are two pinkies as well thrown in for good measure. It's different, which is good, but it is also one very entertaining story, which is better. Ms McKendrick draws me into the story so well, putting me through what seems like a grinder when it comes to making me feel all taut and worried at the edge of my seat when it comes to rooting for Sophie. What can I say, really, at the end of the day? Yes, the cover is boring and won't get much attention from casual browsers in a bookstore. Perhaps a burning swastika will be more eye-catching, eh? But hey, this book is one good read. If you like a romantic suspense novel with a difference, this one is yours.

Rating: 94


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