Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio

Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: January 2013
Categories: Historical fiction
Source: Doubleday via Shelf Awareness

A sweeping historical novel about a beautiful con artist whose turn-of-the-century escapades take her around the world as she’s doggedly pursued by a Pinkerton Agency detective
The novel opens in 1917 with our cunning protagonist, May Dugas, standing trial for extortion. As the trial unfolds, May tells her version of events.
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.
As the narrative bounces back and forth between the trial taking place in 1917 and May’s devious but undeniably entertaining path to the courtroom—hoodwinking and waltzing her way through the gilded age and into the twentieth century—we’re left to ponder her guilt as we move closer to finding out what fate ultimately has in store for our irresistible adventuress.

My Thoughts:

The settings in Parlor Games were amazing. London, New York, Shanghai, etc., but the same Pinkerton Agency detective keeps tracking May down in these cities. How? It didn’t seem reasonable to me. Maybe I can’t imagine finding people in the years before the internet? May changed her name and moved frequently but Detective Doherty kept showing up at inopportune times. (Just in time to foil her plans!)

I wasn’t able to connect with May. I would have liked to have understood her better, to hear her thoughts and justifications for her actions. I may have liked this book more if I had a clue about May’s motives. Is she trying to help support her family by conning and conniving her way through life? That reason didn’t hold up for me as she treats her family members shabbily at best.

Parlor Games did contain enjoyable sections. I was intrigued by the extortion trial. Those were my favorite parts of the book and the only place I felt I was learning a bit more about the characters. That was what I wanted more of. I loved the idea of this book because I love learning about history and real historical characters. Unfortunately this book fell flat for me.

Parlor Games was apparently inspired by the real life of May Dugas. I’m wondering if a nonfiction account would work better for me? Sadly, this book did not.

9 thoughts on “Parlor Games by Maryka Biaggio

  1. It does sound as though a non-fiction would have worked well in this case. You need to know motives to understand and appreciate the character (whether you end up liking them or not). While I can see how the agency could have tracked her (likely because I've been watching spy shows recently…) the convenience and predictability of the foils I can see being annoying after a while. Good, and ironically considering, detailed review!


  2. This sounds like a fun book, but not really something I would enjoy. I don't think detectives tracking glamorous ladies are really my thing, and I think I would also want to know more about the motivations. Maybe May just enjoyed the glamour and the attention and got caught up in social climbing for her own sake?


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