Book review: A Deal with the Devil, by Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken
We knew that many people thought of all psychics as frauds. We’d heard plenty of horror stories about people who lost thousands of dollars to storefront psychics or psychic hotlines. But we had never heard of a psychic scam quite like this one, in which fraudsters used the mail to pinpoint vulnerable targets.
US officials estimate that in the United States and Canada alone, the scheme has raked in more than $200 million from 1.4 million victims – a number that is already sixty times the number of victims of the infamous Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.
For years, an unusually pervasive mail scam was afoot: people would receive letters from a purported clairvoyant, Maria Duval, claiming that she had special information relevant to them. Often, she offered the possibility of winning lottery numbers revealed to her by nebulous, otherworldly sources and intended for the letter’s recipient. The long letters included various creative (but obvious) ploys for money, and if a person stopped sending checks, further letters took on a dark and nasty tone, threatening and menacing the recipient to pay Duval lest bad things happen in their lives beyond their control without her otherworldly guidance.
The Maria Duval scam reminds…of a cult in the way that it creates a special relationship with its victims that is entirely resistant to logic.
Sadly, many of the victims were elderly, worried about surviving on small pensions, desperately battling medical issues, or fretting about being able to leave something behind for their families. And many had debilitating illnesses like Alzheimer’s, adding a much more heartbreaking element to this case beyond the already depressing idea of desperate, down on their luck people giving money to unscrupulous scam artists.
It also negates the classic “fool and his money” argument that crops up around scam situations. Many of the people conned who were in their right minds felt stupid and ashamed when reality hit them, but nevertheless the elderly were specifically targeted, even when loved ones tried to intervene and cancel the letters. Duval, or the company behind her name and image, inundated cultivated mailing lists of the vulnerable.
But the story gets stranger – it’s unclear whether Maria Duval, alleged to be an Italian-born, French citizen, is even a real, living person. A shell company is registered out of a PO Box in the small town of Sparks, Nevada, where her letters are mailed from. But trusting respondents’ answers were dug out of Long Island dumpsters by US government fraud investigators when they began their own search into the source of this thickly obfuscated con. And the letters were translated into countless languages, distributed around the world.
The gun-toting postal investigators who dug through Dumpsters. The curious accountant holed up in a nondescript office space in Shakespeare’s birthplace. The Swiss businessman who was part of an alien-worshipping religion. The mailing genius who supposedly met his untimely demise in a Parisian motorcycle accident…The mysterious man with all the mailboxes. The shady attorney with the Monaco high-rise. The male crime reporter who somehow ended up writing fantastical letters in the voice of a female psychic.
Somehow, our investigation into a case of consumer fraud had led us to theories of a satanic cult hiding in the shadows for centuries.
Yes, even a good old satanic cult rears its head. A truly fascinating mess of a scam. And those are only a fraction of the elements of this bizarre, convoluted, twisty-turny story.
CNN Money reporters Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken wrote a series of investigative journalism pieces on this story in 2016, and this book is a continuation of those. I haven’t read them, so I can say they’re not necessary as prerequisites for the book.
So many people, places and weird twists crop up throughout the narrative that it’s best read quickly, without waiting too long to finish it. Not that that should be a problem – even if it does feel somewhat unsatisfying ultimately, it’s nearly impossible not to inhale. I was mesmerized by this story.
The writing left something to be desired – the “we” perspective used reads awkwardly, and it’s clear these reporters are better at piecing together research and chasing leads than writing it up as narrative nonfiction. But that’s okay! A book doesn’t necessarily have to be beautifully written to be compelling and to address important subject matter. But the thin writing does pull you out of the story at times. Like when they ask themselves things like, “Could this really have happened?” after utterly non-convincing moments or reveals, like the same story of proof of Maria’s clairvoyance being told multiple places by multiple people. Why that would give them pause, I have no idea. Just because a lie is repeated, even if it’s a particularly tenacious lie, doesn’t give it veracity.
For as completely fascinating as this reportage is – and it really is completely fascinating – it ends feeling unsatisfying, or unfinished. For all they uncovered, they never got to speak directly with Duval herself, and the majority of people they did speak with, beyond the scheme’s victims, had plenty of reasons to lie or obfuscate what actually happened or what their role was. Ellis and Hicken can partially deduce it, but it’s never possible to cut through the entire dense web that’s been woven over the course of decades.
I was pleasantly surprised that the business elements of the story were handled so clearly and understandably – I find my mind wandering so often during (necessary) business threads in this kind of reportage, but the authors do an excellent job of making the complicated international business dealings completely understandable for the layman. That’s no small feat.
This is a fast-paced, compelling read and a scam that deserved the detailed attention of this treatment, considering how many people have been irreparably hurt by it. The story is so interesting that it’s hard not to wish, upon finishing, that it had been possible to know even more of the truth. 3.5/5 but 100% recommended – it’s a bizarre and fascinating case, even if the book has some shortcomings.
And an update: The authors let me know that the published edition has a new afterword with a story of them finally meeting the elusive, mysterious Maria Duval in France, a wrap-up that gives the story a little more closure.
A Deal with the Devil:
The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History
by Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken
published August 7, 2018 by Atria (Simon & Schuster)
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