I’m not generally a fan of historical fiction based on real, non-fiction people as the main character. It feels as though far too many liberties can be taken and, as a lover of all things historical and non-fiction, that’s a fine line for me. That being said, when I saw the cover for Maryka Biaggio’s Parlor Games listed on Goodreads, I was hooked enough to at least enter the giveaway for a copy. I won, obviously. It worked out too, because the story is about May Dugas who, while real, is not at all well known so, in fact, may as well be a fictional creation.
I had very high hopes for the book. After all, the back cover promises the story of a dangerous con-man, in this case woman, who is chased from Chicago to San Francisco and on to Shanghai, Tokyo, New York and back again by a diligent Pinkerton detective. Dangerous con-women who occasionally work in brothels, Pinkertons, world travel in a pre-World War I era… where could it go wrong?
Unfortunately, in a number of places.
The reader is promised a woman who works in Chicago’s most famous brothel. I’m not saying that I was looking for descriptive brothel scenes, but May spent about six pages in the brothel and probably two of them involved a man. May isn’t dangerous either, not in the least. The characters who die in this book? They could have died just as easily and in the same fashion if they’d never known her. And the Pinkerton detective randomly appears, all too conveniently, in every city May visits. He never stays long enough for the reader to form any firm opinions about him other than that he is a man who really knows how to get around and that he’s a pro at bothering poor May.
Not that May is poor.
Even in the short time she spends in the brothel, she becomes a rich woman. The rest of the book is about her using all the skills that made her successful in the brothel to stay rich. It’s not always easy. She even falls in love along the way, making things all the more difficult for her. She goes through phases of being a girlfriend, a prostitute, a fiancee, a wife, a mistress, and a kept woman. The richer the man, the better.
The trouble really only occurs for her when she uses the same charms of seduction of a female lawyer named, of all things, Frank Shaver. Frank toes all the right lines but confesses to May what it is she really wants. May doesn’t feel the same. So Frank sues her. That’s where the story starts and where it ends. All the rest is the tale of how May got to that particular point in her life.
I will give credit where it’s due. Biaggio picked the absolute perfect person to tell the story – May. May Dugas is the only one who could tell her tale and do it justice so having her ask the reader to be the one to sit in judgment of her guilt or innocence was a stroke of genius. That’s what made me keep reading even when I wanted to give up because it seemed like the event had already happened, a time or two. I wanted to hear May tell it, and she did.
Fantastically, just as you would expect her to do.
(Disclaimer: I won a copy of Parlor Games in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. This review will be cross-posted there.)