Now you can see why a parrot could be a passably good economist. Simply teach it to answer ‘supply and demand’ to every question!”
Such is the pleasant air of the cozy whodunit Murder at the Margin. This mystery is set in Caribbean St. John, where protagonist Henry Spearman’s vacation is interrupted by a homicide on the island. Spearman is a Chicago-school economist who’s at all times sighted by his profession.
Love, hate, benevolence, malevolence or any emotion which involves others can be subjected to economic analysis. When I say ‘I love you,’ it means my utility or happiness is intertwined with yours. Of course, the expression would be hard to work into a love song.”
The book was penned in 1978 by economists William L. Breit and Kenneth G. Elzinga under the pseudonym Marshall Jevons. On first printing there wasn’t any reference to the actual authors. In fact, the real authors put out a short farcical biography in which Marshall Jevons was described as sort of a sporting playboy millionaire (economics professors have fantasies too.) Readers of the right esoteric bent likely noticed the nom de plume was a hybrid of the names Alfred Marshall and William Stanley Jevons. Alfred and William were real-life 19th century economists. I’d be willing to bet that, before publication, Breit & Elzinga’s pen name had already spread throughout their field as a pleasant trivium.
In subsequent pressings Breit & Elzinga’s real names were revealed. After all, the glory & fortune of a niche mystery writer is one monumental step ahead of that of a prestigious economist (right!? - I howl to myself whilst pitching my own niche mystery.) More verifiably, Breit & Elzinga had intended for Murder at the Margin to be a teaching (especially self-teaching) tool anyway.
The teaching purpose is well-executed. I was an economics major when I read Murder at the Margin. Integral to the splendid fiction are reinforcements of the basic economic tenets I’d learned in Micro and Macro 101 classes. After went through Stats easily enough but hit a wall at Calculus. No, my Econ Calc professor did not speak English, but I would have been toast either way. So I switched my major to some frivolity like English or Film. And here we are!
Murder at the Margin really is intended for readers like me though. By “readers like me,” I mean economic lay people. I’d been told by several economics bachelors that an econ degree would help me understand all human behavior and therefore grow me wise to worldly mysteries. This novel charmingly reflects that outlook. Charming as it may be, it’s unsubtle and sometimes reads like YA textbook fiction with its stripped-down lessons.
The thought struck Spearman that the proverbial visitor from Mars, if told that our world was divided into two kinds of economies, unplanned and centrally planned, would doubtless have thought the Cruz Bay dock represented remarkable planning. Every item seemed to be matched with someone who wanted it. And yet the neat meshing of wants with goods was brought about entirely through the operation of what Adam Smith had dubbed that ‘simple and obvious system of natural liberty.’ It was one of the paradoxes of economic theory and, Spearman believed, one of its greatest discoveries, that the most orderly economies were the least planned.”
Communists will hate this book.
Ahem, anyway – The theories presented might seem basic to any typical American reader who’s ever watched a presidential debate. But if while reading, one is already casually familiar with the elementary theories in Murder at the Margin, one might at least be further attuned to how much economics truly is a study of the world as a whole, beyond just finance. Economics is a synthesis of all human behavior, made up of tried principles galvanized by advanced mathematics (at least that’s what I hear the mathematics do.) It is the less-soft science behind anthropology, psychology, and political science. It also reflects the spectrum of mundane daily choices to deep religious beliefs.
Spearman usually assumed individuals operated in their self-interest, not out of love. And while he attached no moral connotation to the self-interest assumption, he was troubled by Dyke’s assertion that people could be motivated solely by love. For many years an agnostic, he was reminded of a Bible verse from Hebrew school: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.’ The verse struck a responsive chord, and he thought to himself that someday he would have to rethink certain theological issues.”
Professor Spearman assists – maybe pesters a little – the local police force in solving the latest town homicide through an economic mindset. The invisible hand, economists’ God-term for market forces, is keenly perceived by Spearman. This awareness is pivotal to the closing of the breezy 198-page mystery.
We’re also treated to the occasional nugget of truth from non-economist characters, which clarify Spearman’s assertion that his profession applies to everything.
Oh, you see, Inspector, he married ‘up’ as they say, and people who do this can seldom feel at ease in their spouse’s circles.”
“....it might be that a snobbish person realizes at bottom that his personality is not genuine, since his cues come from without and not from within.”
Purchase Murder at the Margin on Amazon.