A sparkling historical novel based on the remarkable true story of turn-of-the-century con artist May Dugas, once dubbed America's "Most Dangerous Woman.”
It’s 1887, and eighteen-year-old May Dugas has ventured to Chicago in hopes of earning enough money to support her family. Yet when circumstances force her to take up residence at the city’s most infamous bordello, she chooses to use her feminine wiles to extract not only sidelong looks but also large sums of money from the men she encounters. Insinuating herself into high society, May lands a well-to-do fiancé—until, that is, a Pinkerton detective named Reed Doherty intervenes.
Reed has made it his mission to bring May to justice, and he pursues her across the world, from Shanghai to London and back, until he makes one last daring attempt to corner her. But May still has a few tricks up her sleeve, tricks that just might prove she’s one tough woman to catch.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 7.06(h) x 0.84(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Menominee, Michigan—January 22, 1917
I believe, dear reader—and these words come from the bottom of my heart—that I can truly trust you. Look at yourself. You’ve sought out my story; you’re willing to hear me out through these many pages. Who but a worldly and curious soul would undertake such a journey? Why, already I discern in you the intellect and refinement of a person with an open heart and nimble mind. 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.
With the trial slated to open at two in the afternoon, my brothers and I enjoyed a leisurely luncheon at home. Then Paul drove us through swirling snow to the courthouse in his 1916 Apperson Jack Rabbit. He’s so proud of that car—with its spruce-green exterior and leather seats as comfortable as a sofa. But, then, his automobile business does stock the latest models in the Upper Peninsula.
“I believe, Paul,” I observed from the back seat, “that Mr. Apperson has taught Henry Ford a thing or two with this car.”
Gene, who sat beside me, said, “Taught him how to build the most expensive thing on wheels is what he’s done.”
I chuckled—Gene and I fell easily into the sport of teasing our older sibling—and added, “Now, if only you could find a buyer for it in Menominee.”
Paul pivoted his blocky head in my direction. “If I get the chance to sell it.”
I resented Paul’s insinuation that he stood to lose property in the lawsuit. After Papa’s passing, Paul had ordained himself head of the family, even though the best he’d ever managed was a lumber worker’s salary—that is, until I financed his automobile business. In truth, the responsibility for substantial support of the family had always fallen to me.
I reached over the front seat and patted Paul’s shoulder. “You needn’t worry. Have I ever let you down?”
“You’re coming damn close,” said Paul.
“Oh, don’t make it harder than it already is,” Gene said. “None of us likes being dragged to court.”
I could always count on Gene to take my side whenever Paul goaded me. With a winking nod to Gene, I said, “I’m sure it will all come out fine.”
Everyone should have a brother like Gene. He’s as loyal as a musketeer, always ready to serve up merriment, and dashing to boot. Today he sported a trim charcoal-gray suit; Paul wore a baggy black jacket and shiny-with-wear wool pants. Gene, at six foot two, surpasses Paul in height and carries himself as erect as a proud stallion. Gene has the sort of looks that beguile women—twinkly blue eyes, a shapely mustache, and tawny-brown hair. Paul, stouter of build and perpetually glum, has only managed to attract a dowdy wife who disdains the revelry Gene and I naturally fall into. How perfectly provident that Gene, and not dull Paul, was named after our charming father.
Paul eased up on the accelerator as we rounded the corner onto Ogden Avenue. Wagon and car wheel ruts grooved the snow-packed streets, and our car jostled over the ridges, bouncing us up and down on our seats. Between buildings and in storefront cul-de-sacs, a gusting wind played the snowdrifts, skimming snow off their thin peaks and carving them into lopsided mounds. The drying cold of winter that hangs in the air even during a snowstorm pricked my bare cheeks and neck; I clutched the folds of my moleskin coat against its bite.
We approached Foster’s Dry Goods, and I spied Mr. and Mrs. Foster standing as still as mannequins, gazing out the window. As we drove by, the couple stretched their necks to study us, making no attempt at a greeting.
Gene leaned forward and gripped Paul’s seat. “Look at the Fosters admiring your car.”
Paul trained his eyes straight ahead. “More likely trying to spot our notorious sister.”
“Well, you’re wise to drive this car around town,” I said, intent on nudging Paul back to some measure of civility. “Surely it’s good for business.”
Not that Menominee offers much by way of business. I’ve seen cities all over the world—Chicago, sparkling and booming after the Great Fire; Portland, brash as the Wild West; Shanghai, steeped in trade and mystery; and London, civilized and regal. This town, however, has “bust” written all over it: the sorry storefronts bleached as ashen as driftwood; many of its once-booming lumber mills shuttered; the ice-encrusted shores of Lake Michigan impassable for months on end; and the surrounding forests, once thick with white pine, nearly all logged out. All in all, a rather pitiful place. As for me, I’d rather roast in the Mojave than live in Menominee. The only good thing that comes of being stuck here for this trial is the chance to enjoy my brothers’ company.
We parked beside the courthouse, among a hodgepodge of Tin Lizzies and horse-drawn wagons and carriages. The piebald mare only a few feet away drooped her head as snow collected in splotchy blankets on her contoured back. At the slamming of our car doors she neither budged nor blinked. The poor thing—what a shame that this trial forced her to endure such numbing cold.
Positioning myself between Paul and Gene, I hooked a hand under each one’s arm, and they escorted me through the front door and up to the second-floor courtroom. Paul opened the door and I stepped forward.
Townspeople had absolutely mobbed the courtroom—to say nothing of the eight to ten newsmen with writing pads at the ready. As we walked in, heads turned and followed us. On the water-stained wood floor, snow melted and puddled around the onlookers’ feet. Coats, gloves, and farmers’ boots gave off wet-wool, stale-dirt, and manure odors. The pungent brew tickled my nose; I swept my wrist under my nostrils to supplant the stench with my Jasmin perfume.
As we marched along, Gene exchanged soft hellos with several people seated on the aisle. Holding my chin up proudly, I smiled and nodded at those who dared to cast their probing gaze my way.
I wasn’t surprised that nearly half the town had shown up for the trial; it’s been the talk of the Upper Peninsula for months now. If I had to live here season after season, I’d consider it the highlight of the year, too. Imagine how it’s been these past months: On afternoons when their husbands toiled at the mill or factory, women gathered over their needlework to speculate and gossip about me. That’s not to say the men are uninterested. Oh, no, I can’t walk ten feet in this town without a man’s eyes trailing me—surreptitiously if his wife is on hand, but even if she isn’t, never so boldly as to require a chastening from a sister, the pastor, or whoever might observe him ogling that “swindler May,” as the town’s women have likely christened me. Why, I wasn’t even surprised to hear they’d been rehashing what turned out to be a mistaken pregnancy by hometown boy Robby Jacobsen.
Oh, yes, the womenfolk of Menominee had flocked to the courthouse, and as I stood unfastening my coat at the defendant’s table, I noticed they weren’t too proud to stare. Most of the crowd was older—women without children or chores, I imagine—all gussied up in their Sunday best with their hair neatly combed and hats pinned in place. They packed into the rows and chattered away like youngsters on a sleigh ride. The smattering of husbands accompanying their wives sat hunched over, clutching their hats two-handed, pretending a lack of interest. The fact is, they were all there because this trial is the most exciting thing that’s happened around here since the great train heist of ’93. Well, who can begrudge them the diversion and entertainment my trial offers?
But such a bleak place the courtroom was, with plain, stiff-backed chairs in the jury box and pew benches for onlookers. Bare lightbulbs hung from twisted brown cords and lit the room as bright as new snow. All the sounds around me—the bailiff’s clacking heels, my lawyer and his associate’s whispered exchanges, and the buzz of conversation from the crowd—bounced off the high, unadorned white walls like the bleats of animals shut up in a barn.
I took my seat on the hardwood chair next to my attorney, greeted him, and smoothed the folds of my skirt. Through the tall windows lining the room, only bare, spindly treetops could be glimpsed, as if the architect intended to intimidate with narrow, jail-style windows. Radiators pinged, wafting the tinny scent of melting snow on their waves.
The bailiff announced, “All rise,” and the assembly shuffled to its feet. Judge Flanagan strutted in, his black gown trailing over the bench steps.
And so began my trial. 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.
What People are Saying About This
"An engaging glimpse into a character, who categorically eludes our attempts to define her.”
"This double-stranded narrative bounces back and forth between the extortion trial of turn-of-the-century con artist May Dugas and the international escapades that led to her arrest. Basing her novel loosely on a real-life figure, the woman the venerable Pinkerton Agency once dubbed the “Most Dangerous Woman,” Biaggio re-creates the deliciously fabulous foibles and follies of a woman born into hardscrabble circumstances but determined to make her way in the world with wit, beauty, and a brazen ability to exploit her feminine charms for a very high price. Whether one admires or reviles May, theres no doubt that she [Biaggio] makes the most of every entertaining opportunity—and, hey, a girl’s gotta make a living, especially with a particularly persistent Pinkerton detective hot on her heels. Sheer, frenetic fun."
"Parlor Games is a captivating tale narrated by the irresistible and deliciously unreliable con-woman, May Dugas. Her escapades, which span the Gilded Age right through the turn-of-the-century, immediately transport the reader to a bygone era. It's a wildly entertaining and constantly surprising ride."
Daisy Goodwin, author of the New York Times bestseller American Heiress
“Come meet May Dugas, a con artist of the highest order. You’ll be swept up by her delicious voice from the first page of Parlor Games, so prepare to be joyously fleeced. This jaunty tale through the life of a woman who keeps one step ahead of a dogged Pinkerton agent of the law is a true pleasure, something like munching your way through a box of chocolates all by yourself. Curl up and settle in for a lovely read.”
Kate Alcott, author of the New York Times bestseller The Dressmaker
“Like Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair before her, May Dugasdelightfully unrepentantcharms with tantalizing glimpses of her con games as she cheats her way from poverty into opulence.”
Eva Stachniak, the author of The Winter Palace
“Parlor Games is both playful and deeply serious in its portrayal of one determined woman's battle to make her way in a man's world. You'll be cheering for May Dugas as she cons her way across the continents. She's a terrific creation.”
Matt Rees, author of Mozart's Last Aria
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discussion of Maryka Biaggio’s Parlor Games.
1. In the first paragraph May says, “You and I, my new friend, will become well acquainted over the course of this tale.” How well do you think you really know May by the end of the novel?
2. At the end of the first chapter May explains, “I will tell you my story—all of it—and truthfully, as I’ve never been able to tell anyone before.” Is she always honest and, if not, what gives her away?
3. What do Frank’s letters imply about the nature of the relationship between her and May? Can we trust Frank’s portrayal of her relationship with May?
4. What kind of influence did May’s childhood have on her?
5. To what extent do you believe May’s actions were motivated by a desire to serve her family? And do you think May considers this a justification for her actions?
6. Do you believe May really loved any of the men she met during her travels? Did she ever find true love?
7. What does the yellow diamond necklace symbolize to May? What does it mean to you?
8. Were Pinkerton Detective Reed Dougherty charges of blackmail, spying, and extortion justified, or was he, as May contends, interfering in personal matters outside the province of the law?
9. Did May learn anything over the course of her adventures and trials? If so, what lessons did she learn?
10. At the close of the opening chapter, May exhorts the reader to hear her out and then be the judge. What is your verdict on May and her dealings with Frank and the men in her world?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Parlor Games, written in the first person voice of May Dugas, gives away the game with a neat device in the opening paragraph. May starts by trying to sweet-talk the reader. We know her "inner" character immediately--she's a con-artist. May moves through this book with her eye always on the main-chance; if she's smart enough to survive, why shouldn't she prosper at the same time. May is developed in terms of actions and I can't think of a better way to explore a sociopathic personality. The driving force of May Dugas' life is action/reaction, not inner reflection. She careens from one cliff-hanger to another--sometimes improving her financial or social status along the way. May is quick witted, a quick study,has "gumption", and is determined not to live life as a poor person if better odds are within reach. Using her beauty (and the charm she picks up along the way) as a tool upon rich men, she repeatedly improves her odds. But, rich men are not without their own weapons; throughout the book, May is haunted by a Pinkerton detective, hired by rich men. The Pinkerton man often drives the crises in this book, which in turn drive the non-stop action. Another interesting characteristic of this book is attention to period detail--architecture, clothing, luxury items, etc. May Dugas, the quick study, picks up on the details she needs to know to move in her preferred circles. She sees the surface details of the life of the rich and absorbs them almost by osmosis--that is her character development. As a fan of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley series (and the TV series Dexter), I enjoyed May Dugas' story for the guilty pleasure of rooting for a charming and quick-witted criminal (though May omitted murder from her bag of tricks). What's amazing is that May was real and the major events in Parlor Games did happen. Using the major true events as a framework, the author has invented and fleshed out a convincingly engaging story of the in-between events that get May Dugas from major event A to major event B and so on. This is a fast-paced and fun read telling of the roller coaster life of a genuine picaresque "heroine".
What a great trip I just came back from and I didn't even need to leave my couch. Grab "Parlor Games" and experience life with May from her humble home in Menominee to many exquisite hotels throughout the world. I loved the journey that Ms Biaggio created for me. The shenanigans of May will make you laugh out loud. I can't wait to share this book with my book-club as it will spark many lively discussions. Well done Maryka Biaggio!!! BRAVO
This a quirky novel that holds your attention. It is based on an actual lady that was a "con" artist. The novel includes prostitution, traveling, many lovers, a trial, a detective, a faithful servant, two goofy brothers, a beautiful necklace, high society, Michigan, Londan, Hong Kong, and more. The main character is funny and fascinating. This novel is an easy and fast read. The book deserves an A++++++
Rating 4.5 I read this book as part of my monthly book group meeting. May Dugas was an actual woman pursued for ten years across several continents by the same Pinkerton Detective. Her trial in Chicago is well documented and the detective gave a full account of his pursuit to a Chicago Times journalist in 1940. The detective referred to her as: "The most dangerous woman in the world". Yet she never killed anyone and, as far as we know, never actually stole money from anyone. What she did do was use her seductive powers to bring herself into the orbit of wealthy men and then spent their money rather recklessly for her own gain. She is what we might call today a social climber—albeit a very clever and calculating one. The book is written in the first person, interweaving the actual trial with backstory chapters where May describes what “really” happened that got her to that trial. Normally I don’t like this kind of alternating chapters style, but this was well done and I believe a great choice to tackle this material and this particular woman. The trial chapters give the reader a different view of events from what May describes. The reader is immediately pulled in to May’s view of her innocence. One can’t help but admire her initial desire to help her family, and the difficulties of being a woman in a man’s world—where you have little rights to property or other possessions without marriage. As with any unreliable narrator, even when I thought I was being conned I still wanted to root for her to be found innocent. Even though I didn’t really trust her, I often found myself asking, if she were a man would she have been on trial at all? May certainly uses her feminine beauty and seductive powers to get what she wanted. I found her to be passionate, totally self-centered, and yet tantalizingly cunning and constant in marching toward her goals. Coming from a poor background in the midst of the gilded age at the turn of the century, May understood all too well that society judged one’s worth by possessions rather than character. The writing is solid, the research is amazing, and the way in which May’s character is slowly revealed to the reader makes this a great psychological study of perception and rationalization on both May’s part and the men of that time. The only reason I couldn’t give this book a clear 5 is that I did find myself losing interest a little after the midpoint due to the repetitive nature of her life—seduce someone, buy more things, leave and move onto someone else. She did travel to many places in the world as she climbed to the top rungs of society. I hung in because I was invested in seeing how the trail would turn out and how May would take her just desserts. I’m glad I stayed with it to the end because I believe it is true to the actual events as much as possible and, for me, justice was served. Perhaps even May learned something and gave something back to the world. I won’t reveal how she does give back because you must read the book first. Definitely well done and I would definitely read another book by this author.
I love this book....I still have the last 75 pages to read. It is one of those books that although you can't put it down, you don't want to finish it. Great character development. A fast paced adventure. You just imagine yourself right in the plot living her adventures. Would love to read more of Maryka Biaggio
I enjoyed this book very much. The many adventures May had in her lifetime were ahead of the times. I would have liked to have been her assistant and travel right along.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Parlor Games. The main character of May Dugas is lively, interesting and very well drawn. The period is accurately described. The book held my interest from beginning to end. It’s a real page turner. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, particularly works with a formidable female protagonist.
Parlor Games is an extremely well-written book by first-time author Biaggio. The protagonist really existed which makes the story all the more compelling. Who was the real May Dugas? We'll never really know but this book creates an unforgettable portrait of a singular woman who lived in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Enthusiastically recommend.
This is a fun story and definitely evocative of the time and setting. The main character seems to entrap and trick everyone she interacts with, even the reader at some points. If you like historical fiction about women and being transported to a different time and place through storytelling, you will probably enjoy this book. My one complaint is the ending - it felt like the author simply stopped writing, instead of providing a definitive conclusion to May's story.
A page turner! Kept me interested from page one to finish. A 5 star all the way.
You hear sometimes in the news of women who live by their beauty and their wits. This book gives you some idea of how.