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. New York: Atria Books. 2018. ISBN: 978-1-5011-6384-5. 304 pp. Hardcover, $26.
In the 1990s, it was common to see ads in British magazines—chiefly aimed at women, if I remember correctly—for “psychic” services. A number of these advertised amulets or talismans that would be sent to you if you wrote to the address provided, and these were supposed to do wonderful things for your life. One of our skeptics filed a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority and got a ruling to require these ads to make less absurd promises.
One name in particular popped up a lot in those ads: Maria Duval. I briefly tried corresponding with her operation to see what would happen. Not much, as I recall: you got a cheap talisman trinket of some sort and were encouraged to write back, enclosing some very small amount of money, and it didn’t seem worth pursuing (plus, I draw the line at sending money). It seemed “mostly harmless,” as Douglas Adams might have said, aside from the stupidity of the whole thing. It’s embarrassing to see how wrong I was.