A Deal with the Devil

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 07 Aug 2018

Member Reviews

You should read it if: You’re a fan of true crime of the non-murdery variety or if you’re fascinated by investigations into real-life scams, hoaxes, and general incidents of people being evil (think the kinds of things John Oliver is likely to cover on Last Week Tonight).

You should skip it if: You believe in psychics and know you won’t ever stop, even when presented with facts about how terrible a scam involving a fake one can be.

Overall thoughts: This book takes you deep (very deep) into the inner-workings of one of the longest-running and most financially-devastating psychic cons/mail fraud schemes in history. The story is fascinating and the characters within the book are vivid and interesting. The authors have a style that can be grating at times, but only because they try to inject some of their personal experience into the story and it can’t compete with the rest of what’s presented.

Buy here if it sounds like your kind of thing.
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This was a strange true story that I felt really did not go anywhere.  I kept wading through the accounts of these sad fraud cases with  so many details that seemed to lead nowhere, hoping that  the story would at some point prove interesting but it did not. I just could not find the telling of this story compelling. The writing was bland and I just could not finish it.
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This is a very important and interesting book. This kind of thing happens all over the world under all sorts of pretenses (religious guru, demagogues, connection with spirits, special power in numbers, stones etc.) and they all have one thing in common: targeting the soft-headed or easily manipulated or desperate. In this case, the mail scam was targeting senior citizens. 

Thanks for the ARC.
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Exceeding well researched with excruciating detail. Progresses well with the background of all the known and conjectured perpetrators. Very heartrending to read about the victims (suckers) of this crime. Recommend for the truly obsessive "true crime" aficionado..Much reading material here, good for a long weekend too.
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Story of a mail scam involving a French psychic that reads like fiction. It's almost as if there were actually a Nigerian prince. Curious how they targeted the aged and infirm.
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I could not put this book down! Fans of conspiracy theories and true crime will become fully enveloped in this riveting tale!
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2.5 stars

Meh... A Deal With the Devil promises more than it delivers. The authors are two CNN reporters who follow the trail of a scam that preys on older vulnerable people. The scam involves letters sent by an apparent psychic, Maria Duvall, who seeks payment to protect against bad fortune. The authors set off to figure out if Maria Duvall exists, and what lies behind the scam. While the scam has led to much personal hardship, what they find isn’t all that extraordinary or surprising. In the end, it feels like having spent so much time investigating the Maria Duvall letters, the authors felt compelled to write a sensationalistic book about their quest and what they found, but I often felt like their narrative was overblown. I doubt this was this biggest scam in history. Greedy people preyed on vulnerable people. Sad but, unfortunately, not uncommon. Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for an opportunity to read an advance copy.
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A fascinating book about a decades-old mail scam based on a letter sent out purportedly from a psychic named Maria Duval out of France, promising improved health, lottery wins and personal happiness, all simply for contacting her...oh and for sending a bit of money too.  The focus was mainly on those who were vulnerable to being swayed, the elderly, those under stress already, or emotionally unstable, etc. and once they honed in, they were relentless.   

This was a hugely successful scam, making untold millions in hard earned money that was taken from victims.  The authors, journalists who chose to highlight this subject after learning how widespread and how long it'd been going on for, were amazed at what they uncovered. They did quite a job of digging into the complicated and messy case that turned out to be very layered.  An advance digital copy was provided by NetGalley, authors Blake Ellis, & Melanie Hicken and the publisher for my fair review. 

Atria Books
Pub: August 7th, 2018
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This was an extremely well researched and well written look at one of the biggest scams against the elderly in history. I appreciated the authors attention to detail and the way in which they presented the story. The sheer number of victims who put their beliefs, time, and money into the promises of psychic Marie Duvall is heartbreaking and shocking. It's incredible (and awful)  how horribly she scammed people yet also fascinating that she was able to get by with it. An interesting, yet sad read that often made me very angry. That's certainly a sign of good writing for me
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I was intrigued by the blurb - I somehow missed this investigation/scam, but am generally interested in the behind-the-scenes investigatory details that the blurb mentioned. I was a little disappointed though - rather than the dark and twisted tale of schemes and cons that the title, cover, and blurb suggested, I found a rather repetitive recitation of events that felt more like reporters' notes than a book. It was still interesting, but nowhere near as much so as it could have been if it had been written with a little more narrative and a little less "just the facts, ma'am"...
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Two investigative journalists from CNN Money researched the French psychic Maria Duval scam that spanned decades in which people,  mostly vulnerable adults, were scammed out of over $200 million dollars.  This is a very interesting and informative account of their investigation into this very sad case.
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Thanks to Netgalley and Atria Books for the advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for my review. This is the non-fiction account of two CNN reporters’ investigation into the Maria Duval psychic mail scam. The story sounded so intriguing, but the book was a disappointment. It reminded me of the quote “there’s no there there”. It’s basically a recitation of all the weird things that happened to them while they tried to research the story, which in the end wasn’t much of a story at all. And for journalists, the writing was not very good. I read a lot of non-fiction and most of it has more engaging writing.
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This is a meticulously crafted story by two award winning CNN investigative journalists.   Sadly, it is also the true story of one of the longest running scams in history.  The two journalists, Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken write about this scam which targeted the vulnerable and elderly and in the middle of it all is the elusive psychic Marie Duvall.   The scam brought in more than 200 million in the US and Canada alone while investigators from all over the world were unable to stop it.  

It is heartbreaking to read the stories of the “victims” and how much they believed in this Marie Duval and all her promises.   How many of the elderly had cheap tin “talisman” coins hidden in their homes and worn around their necks - coins  that were supposed to bring luck and riches untold.  How many victims sent lockets of their hair (as requested by Marie Duval so she could “feel closer to the person”), how many letters written by victims  pouring  out their hearts  to Marie Duval, how many victims placed so much faith and hope and belief in this women who discarded the lockets of hair, the letters, the photos, - all unopened - in dumps discovered throughout the US..

This was a fascinating read simply because it is not only so well researched and written but also because it exposes the absolute unconscionable actions human beings are capable of and willing to commit in the name of greed.  

Thank you NetGalley and Atria Books for the advance digital copy!
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I learned a lot about the United States Postal system from this book. I was really fascinated by the idea of a mail-order scandal and the psychic(s) at the center of it, but this was kind of a frustrating read - every time it seemed like the authors were making progress on a lead, something happened to stifle them. They eventually kind of unravel the mystery, but the resolution is ultimately unsatisfying - through no fault of the writers. If you go in with the expectation that everything will be wrapped up neatly at the end, you will be disappointed - but if you're fascinated by seemingly endless rabbit holes of conspiracy, then this book is 100% for you.
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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 psychic, Maria Duval, claiming that she had special information relevant to them. Often, she offered the possibility of winning lottery numbers specifically revealed to her from the beyond, intended for the letter's recipient. The long letters included various ploys for money, and if a person started then stopped sending checks at some point, the letters took on a dark and nasty tone, threatening and menacing the person to pay Duval lest bad things happen in their lives beyond their control and 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 knocks out the old "fool and his money" argument that crops up around these kind of issues. Many of the people conned who were in their right minds felt stupid and ashamed when they realized what was going on, but nevertheless the elderly were specifically targeted, even when loved ones tried to intervene and stop receiving the letters. Duval, or the company behind her name and image, inundated specifically 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 clairvoyant, 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 starting point of this thickly obfuscated con. And the letters were translated into countless languages, distributed around the world.

CNN Money reporters Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken wrote a series of investigative journalism pieces on this story back in 2016, and this book is a continuation of those. I haven't read those pieces, so I can say that they're not necessary as prerequisites to understand the book. 

So many characters and twists and turns crop up throughout this narrative that this book is better 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 the whole thing in a few sittings. I was mesmerized by this story.

The writing left a little to be desired - the "we" perspective that's used reads a little strangely, uncomfortably, and it's generally clear these reporters are better at piecing together research and chasing down leads than writing rich narrative nonfiction. But that's ok! A book doesn't necessarily have to be beautifully written to be compelling, interesting, and addressing important subject matter. At times they ask themselves things like, "Could this really have happened?" after utterly non-convincing moments, like the same story proving Maria's psychic powers 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 any more credence.

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 Maria 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 figure it partially, but it's never possible to cut through the entire dense web that's been woven over decades.

I was pleasantly surprised that the business elements of the story were handled so well and understandably - I find my mind wandering so often during (necessary) business threads of these kind of reportage stories, but the authors do an excellent job of making the complicated international business dealings completely understandable for the layman. That's no small feat.

Somehow, our investigation into a case of consumer fraud had led us to theories of a satanic cult hiding in the shadows for centuries.

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.

I don't think sharing the above, a mere fraction of the strange but true stories that build this narrative, is a spoiler, since there's so much more to the whole thing.

This is a great, compelling read and a scam that deserved this detailed attention and treatment, considering how many people have been terribly 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. Verdict: 3.5/5 but 100% recommend, if that makes sense - it's a bizarre and fascinating case, even if the book has some shortcomings.
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I wanted to love this book and parts of it I did enjoy but I just couldn’t get into it. I quit at 66% through it. The writing and details were so descriptive and it’s very apparent how much time, energy and hard work went into getting this story. The premise has me intrigued and it’s not a negative thing, but there were just to many details of the journey for me to follow. Some of the details I felt were repetitive and while I understand this was needed to document the story as it the investigative reporting was done, I just got bored with journey. 
I appreciate the free ARC copy from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.
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Extremely interesting detail of one of the great cons of time! Well written and engrossing
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I received a DIGITAL Advance Reader Copy of this book from #NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  From the publisher --- 
In this spellbinding true story, a pair of award-winning CNN investigative journalists tracks down the mysterious French psychic at the centre of an international scam targeting the elderly and emotionally vulnerable, resulting in an exposé of one of the longest-running cons in history.
While investigating financial crimes for CNN Money, Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken were intrigued by reports that elderly Americans were giving away thousands of dollars to mail-in schemes. With a little digging, they soon discovered a shocking true story.
Victims received personalized letters from a woman who, claiming amazing psychic powers, convinced them to send money in return for riches, good health, and good fortune. The predatory scam has continued unabated for decades, raking in more than $200 million in the United States and Canada alone—with investigators from all over the world unable to stop it. And at the centre of it all—an elusive French psychic named Maria Duval.
Based on the five-part series that originally appeared on CNN’s website in 2016 and was seen by more than three million people, A Deal with the Devil picks up where the series left off as Ellis and Hicken reveal more bizarre characters, follow new leads, close in on Maria Duval, and connect the dots in an edge-of-your-seat journey across the US to England and France. A Deal with the Devil is a fascinating, thrilling search for the truth and is long-form investigative journalism at its best.

To me, it is CRAZY that people fell for this scam but then again, think of the Nigerian Prince Scams,, The You WON a Cruise Scam, The Revenue Canada/IRS scams sent by text, etc. etc. (I can get 20+ A WEEK of these emails and text pleas ... crazy, too!)
Ellis and Hicken did an amazing job uncovering the billion-dollar scam first for CNN and now in this book. It is written in a style that sucks you in, leaves you wondering and then makes you stay up late to finish the book. Great book ... read it and question the next scam letter that comes your way --- you will now think twice.
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"A Deal with the Devil: The Dark and Twisted True Story of One of the Biggest Cons in History" – an overdramatic and misleading title for a book that was as vanilla as an ice cream cone. OK, maybe a vanilla cone with a few sprinkles on top.

The book chronicles the investigative journey of two CNN reporters, Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, as they follow leads on a serious issue – the bilking of money from the elderly through international direct mail scams. The fraud involved a mysterious “psychic,” Maria Duval, and the millions of innocent victims she swindled out of savings by promising rewards of money and good fortune. 

In 2016, CNN relayed a five-part series on their website about this investigation; the book is a companion piece to that, giving more details about the inquiry. I think it's important to have seen the series in order to get the most out of this book. Unfortunately, I did not see it, so my perception of the story most likely is a reflection of that missing element.

Journalists Ellis and Hicken spent many months and many leads tracking down the source of the elusive Maria Duval. Was she a real person, or the creation of some other corrupt entity or business, which had no qualms about preying on elderly, and sometimes ill, men and women?

The story starts out interestingly enough, as the journalists describe their initial involvement in the investigation, and their discussions with family members or actual victims of the scams. They relate in detail their correspondence with the victims and with others who claimed to know Maria Duval, and the arduous task of piecing the clues together.

Unfortunately, these details run on for the majority of the book, and although it is obvious this was a time-consuming and often frustrating job for the investigators, the recounting of their research become repetitious and boring. Fortunately, change happens about two-thirds of the way in, when actual discussions and meetings with critical persons take place, both in America and in France.

There is no doubt that this was a valuable and relevant investigation. I felt there was something missing throughout the book, however, as I expected and hoped there would be more of a resolution as a direct result of the exposé. I was disappointed that there was not a deeper follow-up into what seemed to me to be the real story beneath the psychic cover, but to avoid spoilers, I won’t go into detail. As mentioned previously, if I had seen the series in advance, I would have known more about what to expect and possibly could fill in some of the blanks I thought were missing.

An interesting story, but not as “dark and twisted” a read as I had hoped.

3 stars
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