Published by Doubleday
Publication date: January 15th 2013
You might know her as May, Pauline, Baroness, or Florence but this is one woman who gets around, much to the reader’s delight, in Maryka Biaggio’s debut novel, Parlor Games. Born May Dugas in Menominee, Michigan, this is a young lady who determined early on that the world was what she wanted and what she would have, despite the fact that her family is poor and it’s the 1890s with very limited life choices for women. She decides to capitalize on the one thing she has that every man seems to want: her beauty. At eighteen she heads to Chicago in the hopes of meeting and marrying a wealthy man but with only a small allowance from a hometown boyfriend who thinks she’s pregnant and they’ll be getting married, May does not have many options. The few she has shrink when a Pinkerton detective sent by her wealthy boyfriend’s father finds her and puts an end to her allowance, calling it extortion and threatening to expose her new career unless she ends her relationship with the young man. So ends May’s first adventure in making the world give her what she wants. What she doesn’t know yet is that the Pinkerton detective, Reed Dougherty, will be the longest lasting relationship of her life.
Parlor Games is an engaging read for any number of reasons but the fact that it is a woman running the cons, at a time when women weren’t legitimately allowed to do much of anything, makes the story delicious. May can be perceived as cold-hearted and greedy or as an independent woman who supports herself and her family using the skills that she has; her companionship in exchange for the money, jewelry and travel men give her. They are paying for what they want and if, sometimes, they pay too much, well, lesson learned. May’s travels take her as far away as Shanghai and Japan but after spending most of her career persuading men to support her by using her beauty it is a twist when she is finally brought low by another woman, back in the United States. After decades of friendship, Miss Frank Shaver has decided that May has swindled her out of over $100,000 and takes her to court. The book opens with the beginning of the trial and tales of May’s past alternate with this unpleasant present.
While the surface glamour of May’s jewels and jet-setting life may sound appealing Biaggio also captures the loneliness that can attend such a lifestyle. Early on, May is forced to break off her engagement to a man she truly loves. This, coupled with the ongoing threat of capture, means she can only settle in one place for so long and must always be looking over her shoulder. There is no security and ultimately there is no one she can count on other than herself. Biaggio excels at creating a fully fleshed protagonist: wily, resourceful, smart, and charming. Whether May is good or bad, deserves her punishment or not, she is a character readers will want to see again.