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
Maria Duval was the name and face behind one of the biggest mail frauds in history. People (usually the elderly and vulnerable) sent money to her hoping that her psychic powers would bring them good fortune. But when a pair of CNN reporters tried to track down Ms. Duval they found that she was just a front for a much deeper scam being operated by a variety of mysterious and shady characters.
I don’t say this very often, but this is one of those books I couldn’t put down. It sucked me in and I kept reading it all in a rush.
I think it helped that it was a mystery, and no less satisfying for being a mystery without a full solution. Ellis and Hicken are intrepid reporters, and seem to have been having a lot of fun along the way while trying to track Duval (or “Duval”) down, but as with any great conspiracy story we only get past one wall (or e-mail address, or shell company) to find another standing behind it.
This is what I found so fascinating about A Deal with the Devil. I think everyone agrees that we live in a time that’s rich with magical thinking and dense with conspiracy theories. What doesn’t get enough attention are the background cultural factors that contribute to this.
In some ways it all goes back to the way the world itself has become more complicated through science and technology, making us feel increasingly alienated from and powerless in the grip of tools that we use and depend on every day but don’t understand a thing about. But there is a political and economic side to this as well, as we feel both left behind and in the dark by governments and big corporations that operate so much in the shadows that there’s often no way even investigative reporters working for major news outlets can figure out what it is they do.
This leaves A Deal with the Devil reading a bit like a Pynchon novel for the Google Street View age. All the indeterminacy and mystery in our everyday lives naturally leads to unexpected lapses into credulity and conspiracy mindsets. Near the end of their investigations the authors are even entertaining one tip from Romania suggesting that a cult of Satanists might be behind the whole thing. Shades of QAnon! But the truth, though less sensational, is even more unnerving: a cabal of international money people and crime bosses running a global scam taking in hundreds of millions of dollars. If this is so, might there not also be some truth to ESP and the power of magic crystals? Given the existence of such real conspiracies, wouldn’t it be a kind of survival technique to just believe everything?
The one part of the book I felt resistance to came at the end where the authors finally get to meet Maria Duval and find the perfect image for the wall of unknowingness they’ve come up against in the blank eyes of an old woman afflicted with dementia. There is a suggestion made of this being a final irony, in that Duval herself might be seen as a victim of the fraudsters who bought her name and monetized it by attaching it to their scam. That may be, but I had zero sympathy for Duval. She cashed out and was in no way a victim in all of this.
Noted in passing:
Is it the case that native speakers can’t hear themselves speaking with any kind of accent? That they just see their own accent as “normal”? I think this might happen, which is why I was surprised when the authors (both born and bred in the United States) described the Canadian characters they meet as having “a charming Canadian accent” or “a distinctly Canadian accent.”
According to Wikipedia, most North Americans “cannot distinguish the typical accents of the two countries [that would be Canada and the U.S., though Mexico is also in North America] by sound alone.” Of course there are regional differences. People from Texas, Boston, or Newfoundland have easily recognizable accents. But I don’t think there’s any difference between the speech of someone from Toronto and a native of Cincinnati. The old joke from South Park where Canadians are heard pronouncing “out and about” as “oot and aboot” always baffled me. We don’t sound like Scots.
When I went and watched some videos about Canadian accents I was just as confused. The way words were being pronounced in a “Canadian accent” didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “sorry” pronounced as “sore-ee.” There are some Canadianisms, like the particle “eh?” that I guess are a tag, but to be honest I don’t even hear “eh?” very much anymore. Certainly not as much as it was used thirty or so years ago, when you did hear it all the time. Place names are a specialty in any language, so I don’t know how many people from elsewhere pronounce Toronto as Trahn-toe (which is how we do it). Probably as many as pronounce New Orleans as New Orleens or New Orlee-ans, when I think it’s supposed to be New Orlins or New Awlins (but not Nawlins, which I’ve heard is a myth).
In any event, Ellis and Hicken don’t give any examples of what makes the Canadians they talk to sound so charmingly or distinctly Canadian, so I don’t know what it was they were responding to.
It’s lucky the Duval mail fraud was shut down, though I doubt it has been shut down so much as it’s just been diverted into other channels. These operations know how to stay two or three steps ahead of the law. It’s exasperating reading about scams like this because they’re like junk mail, telemarketers, and spam: at any point the government could step in and put an end to all this but they won’t because there’s too much money involved.
What’s worse, in accepting, as I think we do, that so much of normal capitalist activity is a fraud or a scam, or something very like it, we tend to valorize the scammers as heroes and see their victims as clueless suckers who are, in the words of one of the people involved in the fraud here, “too dumb to live.” Taking the life savings of these people is a sort of cull. And this is old school mail fraud we’re still talking about. The Internet takes this heartlessness to a new level.
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