In college, I found myself enjoying a type of novel classified as picaresque. The word comes from the Spanish word picaro, meaning a “rogue” or a “scoundrel.” These novels are typically narrated by the anti-hero, a person who chooses to live by his or her wits rather than make an honest living; they take us to many places and through different classes of society; and they are frequently humorous, and quite entertaining. Some of the more memorable ones include Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders; Henry Fieldng’s Tom Jones; and William Makepeace Thackery’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon. The picaresque novel most familiar to Americans, however, is probably Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Maryka Biaggio’s breakout novel, Parlor Games, is a novel of this sort. One difference: it is an historical novel. The anti-heroine, May Dugas, is based on an historical personage whose reputation garnered her the moniker of “a most dangerous woman.”
Dugas was not a serial killer. The “danger” faced by those who encountered her was financial. She had a long history of separating male admirers–and one female one–from their money. However, the “victims” were not all that innocent. They all wanted something from her.
Biaggo has a Ph.D. in psychology, and as such has sound insight into her character. She has also researched the late 19th and early 20th century exhaustively, and has written a book that speaks the language of that time, complete with its politeness and well-thought out syntax. This is not an easy thing to do.
Dugas, born in Fox River Grove, Illinois, moved with her mother and two brothers to Menominee, Michigan after her father’s sudden death. She loved her father, and enjoyed the times when he would take her to his favorite bar and have her do pirouettes on the bar to the delight of his drinking buddies. “Some people claim I hate men. Such nonsense. How I loved the sound of the men clapping and hooting.”
A beautiful girl, Dugas soon learned how her feminine charms could control men. Her first dalliance was with the handsome son of the town’s wealthiest citizen, which ended in a pregnancy scare. Not wanting to marry the boy, she talked him into supporting her on a trip to Chicago, ostensibly to find a family to take the child and spare her lover’s family the shame. They could, afterwards, begin their life afresh without the taint of scandal. At least that was what she told him.
In fact, she wasn’t pregnant, and instead found a life for herself in the big city which was everything she had ever dreamed it would be. In time, the boyfriend realized he was being taken and this forced her to find other means of employment. Which she did, without hesitation, in one of Chicago’s finest bordellos.
From there, she went on to enchant well-to-do men on several continents, and was soon the quarry of a Pinkerton detective named Dougherty, who plays Javert to her female Jean Valjean for the rest of the novel.
At one point, she pairs up with a hired “assistant” who is every bit as scheming as the lady herself. Together, they pull of a scam involved a diamond necklace that was allegedly stolen and rip off Lloyd’s of London for a large sum of money.
Her undoing is a woman she befriends, a manly woman named “Frank.” Frank is drawn to her friendship, and soon we understand why. She is in love with Dugas. When the book begins, Frank has filed suit against May–who now goes by “Countess DeVries” after a failed marriage with a Dutch nobleman–and the narrative goes back and forth between the 1917 trial (which is based in fact) and May’s travels through time and across the globe.
Will our heroine overcome the odds? Will she evade the wily Pinkerton man and find happiness? Oddly enough, those questions kept me reading. Biaggio made me care about the characters I was encountering. That’s a real skill for a writer.
I enjoyed this novel immensely. It is not what I thought it would be, just a “chick” book (although women would no doubt enjoy it, since it is about a woman in a time when wits were just about the only thing women had going for them). It is an entertaining romp across the globe, through bedrooms on several continents, and a fascinating insight into a very complicated, and perhaps totally amoral woman.
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris