Is Baroness May de Vries really, as the Pinkerton Agency dubbed her, The Most Dangerous Woman in the World, a con-artist and swindler of the first degree or is she simply a successful gold-digger unjustly accused and hounded by the famous agency? Based on an actual historical figure, Maryka Biaggio's novel Parlor Games brings this fascinating, opportunistic, and possibly criminal woman to life. When the novel opens, she is standing trial for extortion in her hometown of Menominee, Michigan. The charges are not being brought against her by one of her many inamoratos but instead by a female friend, Miss Frank Slater, who is accusing May of running through Frank's entire inheritance and then dropping her like a hot potato once the money was gone. How will the jury rule when faced with this glamorous, titled, once native daughter and the facts of the case?
Born May Dugas, to a tavern keeper and a seamstress, she's spent her life striving for the good and easy life, reaching for wealth and expensive baubles, champagne and caviar, European travels and the men who would provide the niceties for her, always looking for the bigger, better, wealthier sugar daddy. As the novel opens, she confidently declares that she intends to tell her story to the reader, certain that we readers will exonerate her from any wrongdoing whatsoever. Alternating between the testimony of the two week long trial and the events of her entire 48 years, May tells her story her way in both parts of this double-stranded narrative. As she tells her tale though, it becomes quickly and eminently clear that she is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. She blows through men, drawn only to the wealthiest in any given milieu starting with the son ofone of Menominee's first families whom she tells she's pregnant to the son of the wealthy Chicago family which first exposes her unscrupulous behaviour to the Pinkerton Agency to her Dutch Baron husband and many other men besides.
After her false pregnancy, she turns to high class prostitution to earn a living, thinking only of sex as a means to an end. Because May is incredibly resourceful and crafty, she parlays the gifts from her clients into a facade of money and finagles her way into high society, where she uses her abundant charm and sexuality to entrap young men of money into gifts, promises, and engagements. Trailed by Pinkerton detective Reed Dougherty across multiple continents and through many different countries, May continues her pattern of reeling in a wealthy paramour and extracting favors and money before being driven ever onward by Dougherty. She is aided in her adventures and travels by a competent and thorough companion, Daisy Emmett. But when she uses Miss Frank Shaver to fund her extravagances, she might have met her match. May's contention to the reader is that she is truly driven by love or affection for these boys and men and that it is only the unearned haranguing and harrassing by the Pinkerton detective that causes her to move on.
May tells her story in a positively charming and chatty manner, always careful to suggest that while she was certainly interested in money and living a good life, that she was driven by the need to support her widowed mother, shiftless but handsome and engaging younger brother, and her stolid and unimaginative older brother. She embellishes and paints herself completely sympathetically in her telling of her own exploits, playing up her family responsibilities and the inexplicable ways in which men shower her with things out of their own initiative. Despite the fact that she comes across as quite conscienceless and self-centered, she is still eminently appealing to the reader. As the end of the book and the trial draw near, it is almost impossible to escape racing through the final pages to find out the outcome. If the end is completely riveting, the beginning is a bit slow going with the constant back and forth from the trial to May's early life making it difficult initially to settle into the story. The scandals left in May's wake are not particularly unique as she perpetrated the same thing time after time after time but it is interesting to see how many people she took in over a twenty or so year span and how events conspired to keep her untouchable for so long. Over all, this was a very enjoyable read, well-written and entertaining. Fans of historical fiction certainly will thrill to a ride through May Dugas' busy and chic life.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.