On the trail of a French psychic who ran an international scam that preyed on some of society’s most vulnerable people.
In their first book, Ellis and Hicken, investigative journalists with CNN, build on their five-part online piece that first appeared on the CNN website in 2016, and the narrative morphs into a meandering tale full of dead ends, frustrations, and irrelevant details. The authors doggedly pursue the story of a long-lasting con targeting the lonely and credulous with promises of riches and friendship. Their investigation involves an unwieldy cast of characters, which the authors helpfully identify at the beginning of the book. However, many readers will still struggle to follow this Byzantine journey to uncover more information about Maria Duval, a self-proclaimed psychic whose name is on the millions of letters sent out to extract money from the gullible. The scam is reported to have affected more than 1.6 million victims in the United States and Canada, along with uncounted more across the globe. Ellis and Hicken provide a clear picture of the mindset of victims, showing why they were taken in by the scam and how their lives and those of their families were affected. These poor men and women, often demented and elderly (a demographic that loses “nearly $3 billion to fraud and other financial abuses every year”) and often mired in poverty, believed that by mailing money to Duval, they could change their lives for the better and become fantastically wealthy. The authors’ account of their attempts to track down Duval is less engaging. Their search for Duval is a wild-goose chase made difficult by their language limitations, by quirky email leads that do not pan out, and by unanswered correspondence and unreturned phone calls. Their uncertainties, questions, and disappointments figure largely in their discursive narrative.
It’s a fascinating story of widespread malfeasance, but readers hoping for crisp, incisive reporting will be disappointed.