All three Spearman mysteries are available from Laissez Faire Books, (800) 326-0996.
“So if there is a real model for Spearman, his identity remains a mystery, at least to me.”
—Herbert Stein, foreword,
Murder at the Margin
Over the past several weeks, I took a break from writing and decided to read three murder mystery novels, all authored by Marshall Jevons, a penname for William Breit and Kenneth G. Elzinga, professors of economics at Trinity University in San Antonio and the University of Virginia, respectively.
Elementary Economics, My Dear Watson
What makes these mysteries fascinating is the ingenious way the writers incorporate basic principles of economics to solve the murders. Marginal utility, the law of demand, consumer surplus, opportunity cost, profit maximization, game theory, and Adam Smith’s invisible hand all play a part in advancing the stories and ultimately catching the culprits. As Henry Spearman, the detective-hero, says to the local police investigator in Murder at the Margin, “Elementary, my dear Vincent. Elementary economics, that is!”
Let me give you an example from each novel, without revealing the entire plot. In Murder at the Margin (Princeton University Press, 1978; paperback, 1993), Spearman is able to dismiss Mrs. Forte as a suspect in the killing of her husband because “a woman usually would be financially far better off by divorcing her husband than by killing him.” Mrs. Forte’s alimony payments over her expected lifetime would far exceed the death benefits from an insurance policy. Clearly, someone else must have killed Mr. Forte.
In the second novel, Fatal Equilibrium (MIT Press, 1985; Ballantine Books paperback, 1986), Spearman uncovers a fraud in the research of a fellow Harvard professor. In reviewing the professor’s book on prices of various commodities in a remote island, Spearman discovers a statistic that violates the law of utility maximization. The sleuth quickly concludes that his colleague made up the figures . . . and therefore engaged in murder to hide his fictitious research.
In the third novel, A Deadly Indifference (Carroll & Graf, 1995), Spearman is led to suspect an individual who purchases an automobile even though another car in better condition is available at the same price. Obviously, Spearman reasons, the suspect values something in the first car to justify the monetary difference. That something leads to the murderer.
Defending the Free Market
Another likeable feature is the free-market bias running through the mystery series. Henry Spearman consistently defends economic liberty and attacks socialist thinking. He supports free trade, economic inequality, imperfect competition, and private property rights. The economist takes on collectivists of all shades—anthropologists, sociologists, environmentalists, social democrats, Keynesians, and Marxoids.
Who Is This Free-Market Economist?
Who is Henry Spearman, this remarkable proponent of free markets? Spearman is described as a short, balding, stubborn, frowsy professor, former president of the American Economic Association, and a “child of impecunious Jewish immigrants.” Breit and Elzinga admit that they originally had Milton Friedman in mind, except that instead of the University of Chicago, Spearman comes from Harvard. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” Spearman declares in Murder on the Margin. (p. 90) And like Friedman, Spearman is old-fashioned, using a pencil and paper, rather than a computer, to solve problems. Yet the focus of the amateur sleuth is decidedly microeconomic in nature, not monetary policy or macro-theorizing.
Austrian economists will be happy to find a great deal of Ludwig von Mises in Henry Spearman as well. (I thank Roger Garrison for this observation.) The detective-economist defends Say’s Law, the financial markets, advertising, competition, commodity money, even methodological dualism. “Economics is different from chemistry,” Spearman declares. “The methods are different. What goes on in one place doesn’t necessarily go in another.” (Fatal Equilibrium, p. 111) In A Deadly Indifference, the august professor delivers an unpopular speech before the Cambridge faculty in the mid-1960s, forecasting the collapse of Communism because it “is inconsistent with all that we know about the motivations of human action.” (p. 36) Like Mises, who predicted the impossible of socialist economic calculation, Spearman is ridiculed for his extreme position.
More Like Becker?
However, having read all three novels, my feeling is that Henry Spearman is more like Gary Becker than anyone else. Becker, Chicago professor and Nobel laureate, applies economics to marriage, crime, and other non-traditional areas. (See, for example, his book, The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, University of Chicago Press, 1976.) So does Spearman, “pushing his economics into criminology.” He declares, “Love, hate, benevolence, malevolence or any emotion which involves others can be subject to economic analysis.” (Murder at the Margin, p. 61)
Spearman, like Becker, also favors Marshall’s definition of economics as the “study of man in the ordinary business of life.” “Spearman took this definition seriously even though it was considered a bit old-fashioned to some of his younger colleagues who saw economics as a solving of abstract puzzles unrelated to real events.” (Murder at the Margin, p. 113) The authors write that Spearman is trained in statistics and corroborates his “high logical standards” with “empirical evidence.” (Fatal Equilibrium, p. 103) Gary Becker’s faithful application of microeconomic principles to solving problems is consistent with Henry Spearman’s modus operandi. He may not look like Spearman, but he acts like him.
Breit and Elzinga are to be congratulated for developing a creative, clever way to expound the principles of free-market economics. The response has been gratifying. Many professors make Murder at the Margin and the other novels required reading in their classes. I recommend you put them on your summer reading list.