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“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, Atria Books, 290 pages, $26.

Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken are female investigative journalists for CNN. In 2015 they became aware of a mail scam targeting the most emotionally vulnerable segment of our society, senior citizens.

To its credit, CNN allowed the two journalists to devote the next three years to pursuing their project to its conclusion rather than being distracted by the 2016 presidential election. “A Deal with the Devil” is the culmination of their persistence to uncover a vast and complex international crime.

By the time their investigation concluded an estimated billion dollars had passed from the needy and gullible victims into the bank accounts of sociopathic grifters residing halfway around the world.

Letters from a French psychic named Maria Duval were mailed to millions of recipients, many of them suffering from Alzheimer’s dementia. The letters offered worthless trinkets and useless advice in exchange for a non-existent financial bonanza.

Like the irascible and bewildered senior played by Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s acclaimed 2013 film, “Nebraska,” Madame Duval’s victims were convinced of the veracity of the letters and sometimes had depleted their lifetime savings before their folly was discovered.

Readers of detective stories will enjoy following the authors as they negotiate the labyrinthine course of the gigantic con game, which takes them from Sparks, Nevada, to Callas, in southern France, to ascertain whether Maria Duval was, indeed, a real person.

Red herrings abound in the tale, as well as bizarre conspiracy theories, secret societies, and a myriad of shady characters concealing their identities from prying questions about the scam. Switzerland, Monaco, Thailand, Argentina, and even Russia yielded clues.

Like many good mysteries the denouement will leave the reader conflicted about whether justice had truly been served to the perpetrators of the crimes. Ellis and Hicken allow readers to draw their own conclusions.

Those who may eventually find themselves designated caregivers of a loved one should first take this journey exploring the seamy underside of human nature.

J. Kemper Campbell M.D. is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who is glad he never replied to his tempting offer from a Nigerian prince. 


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