Economists Often Solve Puzzles - But What About Murders?

milton friedman teaching economics murder mysteries book review

Jeremy Lott for AdamSmithWorks

"Because of Wheeler’s constant womanizing, Monte Vista turns out to be a target rich environment for suspects. The mystery that Spearman and Fuller have to untangle is this: Was the artist’s death truly a suicide, a crime of passion, or are deeper market forces at work?"
Protagonists of detective fiction are drawn from a long list of occupations: police, of course, but also private investigators, aristocrats, housewives, philosophers, priests, precocious children. Economists, however, have not been well represented among the gumshoe set. The Henry Spearman mystery series aims to remedy that market failure. The series is authored by “Marshall Javons,” a recognized pen name used by Kenneth Elzinga, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia, and the late economist William Breit. The authors chose the pen name as a nod to economists Alfred Marshall and William Stanley Jevons.
 
The Mystery of the Invisible Hand begins with a tease for what is to come – the anonymous outline of a murder by strangulation – and then with the Nobel Prize presentation in Sweden. Henry Spearman, a professor at Harvard in his early fifties, finally receives top honors for his contributions to the field of economics. That award brings him to the attention of Annelle Cubbage, a moneyed up trustee of Monte Vista University in San Antonio, Texas, who wants a Nobel laureate to help put the school on the map. She is persuaded to give that idea a trial run by bringing in a visiting Nobelist for one semester. Spearman and wife Pidge are in turn persuaded to trade the cold of a Cambridge, Massachusetts winter for a Lone Star lark.
 
“Many people...claim that one book brought them to an inflection point in their lives,” Spearman says in his first public lecture to students, faculty, and the public as a visiting Nobelist. “I have met people who claim it was for them the Bible.” For this economist, the literary inflection point was The Wealth of Nations. In fact, he could “scarcely sleep for excitement the night after I read Adam Smith for the first time,” because it seemed to have “brought the whole, vast, and seemingly chaotic universe of economic activity to an all-embracing order” with its metaphor of the invisible hand to describe the decentralized coordination of markets that make so many things possible.
 
Spearman thought Smith’s book had “a quality of the miraculous” and “of genius about it.” Because of The Wealth of Nations, Spearman realized that “economic theory might be equipped to decipher the deepest secrets of human behavior,” up to and including the who, what, and why of murder. Which is fortuitous, because one of his new neighbors, another project that Cubbage is deeply invested in, turns up dead. The death of artist-in-residence Tristan Wheeler appears at first blush to be a suicide, but SAPD Homicide Detective Cherry Fuller suspects foul play.
 
Because of Wheeler’s constant womanizing, Monte Vista turns out to be a target rich environment for suspects. The mystery that Spearman and Fuller have to untangle is this: Was the artist’s death truly a suicide, a crime of passion, or are deeper market forces at work? Spearman’s conjectures along the way are exactly the sort of counterintuitive proposals we have come to expect from economists. For instance, an economist once proposed installing spikes protruding from all steering wheels to cut down on tailgating as a way of illustrating how people respond to incentives. Of course people would give people more room to fellow motorists if the alternative was to end up like Dracula on a bad day.
 
Spearman never says anything quite that far over the top, but he does at one point recommend wearing a tie that costs a small fortune to a colleague worried about getting food on it. That way, the economist posits, he will be extra careful about how and what he eats. All told, The Mystery of the Invisible Hand is a decent whodunit with prose to match. Some might complain that the resolution is a little obvious, yet there are many red herrings for the reader to slip up on along the way to the big reveal.
 
Want to Read (or Listen to!) More?
Juliette Sellgren's The Great Antidote podcast with Kenneth Elzinga
Glory Liu's Inventing the Invisible Hand 
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