|Ivars Peterson's MathTrek|
January 12, 1998
Henry Spearman is a prominent economics professor at Harvard University. He is also an amateur detective, applying reason, logic, and economic theory to solve puzzling murders at a Virgin Islands resort and among members of Harvard's promotion and tenure committee.
Spearman is a fictitious character, the hero of a series of murder mysteries written by Marshall Jevons. Short and balding, the economist-detective does, however, share several characteristics with the eminent, real-life economist Milton Friedman.
Clearly a good sport, Friedman himself contributed the following comment for the jacket of The Fatal Equilibrium, the second Spearman mystery, which was published in 1985: "It is hard to conceive of a more pleasant and painless way of imbibing sound economic principles than reading this fascinating, absorbing, and well-written mystery story."
The prominent role of economic principles is certainly evident in all the mysteries. It doesn't take long for Spearman to begin invoking economic theory in Murder at the Margin, which started the series off in 1978. On his way to the island of St. John in the Caribbean, he ponders the apparent paradox of finding less time to enjoy vacations and leisure activities as his income increased substantially.
"But the paradox was not puzzling to an economist who understood the doctrine of 'opportunity cost,'" Jevons writes. "For each evening spent enjoying his stamp collection, Spearman gave up the opportunity to work on a lecture, article, or book that would bring him a large monetary return. On balance he decided to choose work over leisure. As his book sales and fees rose, the cost to him of that leisure time went up accordingly. Consequently vacations were rare, his stamp collection generally went unattended, and many extracurricular books remained neglected."
Like a professor determined to instruct, the author can't resist the temptation to halt the narrative to present minitutorials on various subjects, from the basics of constructing the drums used by a Caribbean steel band to the pricing strategy of Filene's basement in Boston and the intricacies of operating an ocean liner.
Marshall Jevons is actually a pseudonym for two economics professors: William Breit of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and Kenneth G. Elzinga of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
The pseudonym was formed by combining the last names of Alfred Marshall (1842-1924) and William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882), two distinguished British economists. Both are explicitly mentioned in the second story, The Fatal Equilibrium.
In one aside, we learn that Spearman ranks Marshall over John Maynard Keynes as the preeminent economic thinker of the twentieth century. Marshall is quoted as saying that economics is "the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life."
Jevons codeveloped marginal utility theory, which explains the value of goods and services in terms of the subjective valuation of consumers. That principle plays a crucial role in unmasking the perpetrator in The Fatal Equilibrium.
As a fan of detective stories in offbeat settings, I enjoyed reading the first two books in the Spearman series. Though entertaining, Murder at the Margin, however, seemed to me somewhat contrived and the writing rather stilted. I found The Fatal Equilibrium much more engrossing and lively, almost as if it were written by a different team of authors. I'm intrigued enough to try the third book, but I haven't been able to find a copy of A Deadly Indifference, which is apparently out of print. It deals with nefarious doings connected with the former dwelling place of Alfred Marshall in Cambridge, England.
Murder at the Margin has been used for years as supplementary reading in introductory economics courses. At one college, for instance, students can earn extra credit for writing papers discussing "three economic concepts from the book." That seems to take some of the fun out of reading the mysteries.
The Spearman books haven't convinced me that economic theory, which generally posits a world of total economic rationality, represents an all-purpose, widely applicable explanation of human behavior. Spearman solves mysteries by believing that if someone does something that is apparently irrational, there must be hidden rationality behind it, and he seeks to discover what it is.
"So there are two puzzles in Murder at the Margin," economist Herbert Stein writes in the foreword to the 1993 Princeton University Press edition of the book. "One is who killed A and B. The other is how much resemblance the world of rational economics in which the story takes place bears to the real world. The second puzzle adds to, rather than subtracts from, the fascination of the first."
Copyright 1998 by Ivars Peterson
Jevons, Marshall. 1995. A Deadly Indifference. New York: Carroll &Graf.
______. 1993. Murder at the Margin: A Henry Spearman Mystery. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
______. 1985. The Fatal Equilibrium. New York: Ballantine.
You can learn more about William Breit at http://www.trinity.edu/departments/economics/breivita.html and about the books at http://www.trinity.edu/departments/economics/jevons.html.
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