Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio is a historical novel based on the real-life exploits of turn-of-the-century con artist May Dugas (available January 15, 2013).
In 1887, at the tender age of eighteen, May ventures to Chicago in hopes of earning enough money to support her family. Circumstances force her to take up residence at the city’s most infamous bordello, but May soon learns to employ her considerable feminine wiles to extract not only sidelong looks but also large sums of money from the men she encounters. Insinuating herself into Chicago’s high society, May lands a well-to-do fiancé—until, that is, a Pinkerton Agency detective named Reed Doherty intervenes and summarily foils the engagement.
Unflappable May quickly rebounds, elevating seduction and social climbing to an art form as she travels the world, eventually marrying a wealthy Dutch Baron. Unfortunately, Reed Doherty is never far behind and continues to track May in a delicious cat-and-mouse game as the newly minted Baroness’s misadventures take her from San Francisco to Shanghai to London and points in between.
Parlor Games is an intriguing and well-researched fictionalization of the life of May Dugas, famous for her 1917 extortion trial. Author Maryka Biaggio takes the basic facts known about Dugas and uses a flashback structure to let May tell her life story in between scenes of the trial. We are shown her childhood, her first affair, and her subsequent relationships and travel from her birthplace of Menominee, Michigan, to Chicago, New York City, London, several cities in Europe, Shanghai, and Tokyo. May is an unreliable narrator, so it’s left up to the reader to decide what to think about her actions leading up to the trial. Is she a criminal? An opportunist? Or merely a woman making the best of the opportunities available to her?
Despite the nonfiction elements of the story, it is written as and reads like a novel; the author’s research comes across very organically. I was most intrigued by May’s narrative voice which, while purporting to be nothing but honest, is so self-deprecating and sly that it’s impossible to completely accept the veracity of her motivations. It’s also difficult to tell whether May is lying to herself at any point. It’s a fun way to explore the life of someone who might have been a con artist. Or might not have been.
You and I, my new friend, will become well acquainted over the course of this tale. But you’ll want me to proceed with the telling. That’s what you’ve come for, and I’ll not thwart your wishes a moment longer. So choose your favorite spot—a divan in a sumptuous hotel suite, the leather chair in front of your blazing fireplace, or a sun-soaked bench in a sculpture garden—any place, really, where we might enjoy the luxury of uninterrupted time together, and I will tell you the tale of the most dangerous woman in the world—or so the Pinkertons dubbed me.
Today was the first day of my trial in the booming metropolis of Menominee. I narrowed my attire choices down to an indigo dress or a modest black dress with fluted collar. Looking at the black dress I thought, heavens, it’s no funeral, and donned the blue one. It hugged my torso in a becoming manner, but still struck the serious and formal note required of the occasion. I kept my jewelry to a minimum: a simple sapphire necklace and matching earrings; the carved gold bracelet the Baron gave me on our first wedding anniversary; and my three-stone diamond ring with garland filigrees. As much as I love my jewels, this was no time for ostentation.
…Now, I’ve made a bargain with you, gentle reader, and I intend to keep my end of it. I will tell you my story—all of it—and truthfully, as I’ve never been able to tell anyone before. Then you can decide: Were my actions justified? You, my discerning reader, are the most important juror. You have the advantage of hearing the whole story, straight from the one who lived it. So I say to you now, without hesitation or compunction, hear me out, and then you be the judge.
Though not at all a typical true-crime book, Parlor Games still fits into the crime fiction genre, mostly from a position opposite the Pinkerton detectives. The Pinkertons are ostensibly representatives of the law, but historically were themselves no angels, and as a woman May was always in a more vulnerable position. May’s contention that the detectives interfered in her life without cause complicates the reader’s interpretation of events in the story even further. All in all, it’s an intriguing book if you’re looking for something different. Readers of literary fiction might very well enjoy this novel as well as devotees of historical crime fiction.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War I-set Spice Brief, “Under Her Uniform”, is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.
Read all posts by Victoria Janssen for Criminal Element.