Murder At The Margin: a book review

book cover for Marshall Jevons' Murder at the MarginMurder at the Margin by Marshall Jevons (Princeton University Press, 1978)

Can economics and English ever mix? I switched from English to Economics in graduate school for a purely economic reason. The tenured professors in the English Department were so incensed with their graduate students going on strike for higher wages that the profs abolished the only source of financial aid in the department…awards for teaching freshmen English.

At a mixer for new grad students in Economics at UW, I was teased by an upperclassman, “Oh, you mean English majors can add?” In one of my many classes where I was the only woman, my professor whipped out a poem by an author I’d never even heard of, and looking straight at me, read it aloud. He concluded with a smile and the statement, “Even we economists can appreciate great literature.”

So it was with some delight and skepticism I picked up a copy of Marshall Jevons’ book, “Murder at the Margin,” the first known mystery by an economist. Both feelings were richly rewarded.

This novel is well worth reading not just for its detective’s many wise arguments, usually made to his most forbearing wife, “Pidge,” that use concepts from economics to figure out what’s going on around them. The detective is Henry Spearman an economics professor at Harvard University. Henry is a detective as distinctive as Adrian Monk, Hercule Poirot, or Sherlock Holmes.

The “margin” referred to in the title has nothing to do with investing, as I first thought. It’s a reference to how the addition of lime to a glass of lemonade tips the balance for Henry when deciding whether to spend a dollar for the drink. It’s the place where a “marginal benefit” of some small thing that adds value to a good or service, pushes the buyer to buy it. I sense that “margin” also refers to the fact that Henry and his wife are vacationing at a resort called Cinnamon Bay Plantation on a remote island in the Caribbean. They, and the murderer are on the margin of society in the geographical sense.

The cast of characters at the resort, all diverse and distinctive are amusing, as is the hero. Readers originally thought the book was written by Milton Friedman not only because of similar names but also because of the parallels between Henry’s physical appearance and way of reasoning to Friedman’s. But it was not one of Friedman’s creations. It was written by two less-well-known economists who collaborated and used “Marshall Jevons” as their pseudonym.

“Murder At The Margin”  has lasted 30 years and is used in high school and college classes for teaching students about economics, but I doubt it’s part the curricula of any literature department. The problem with it is that it utterly fails as a mystery.

One of the requirements for a good murder mystery story is that the reader be given all the clues needed to solve the puzzle. “Ellery Queen Jr.” (pseudonym),  Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers come to mind for their skill in using “red herrings” to fool readers while disclosing all the facts needed to figure out the mystery.  But in this book, the authors* were so busy teaching classical economics reasoning that they forgot to reveal the one detail Henry used to figure out whodunit…

This detail is mentioned twice earlier in the book, but without the simple math behind it, the language of the authors is too ambiguous to grasp what was meant by the clue.

The moral of this book, though, is an interesting one. Just as many cops feel that criminals’ stupidity gets them caught, in this book, on at least two occasions, thecriminals are caught out because they are cheapskates. Henry employs his sharp eagle eye to dissect their spending habits and ferret out the truth of their actions.

This book isn’t a great mystery book but it will be a hit with anyone interested in mysteries or economics. Personally i can’t wait to read Marshall Jevon’s second book, “Fatal Equilibrium”!

Copyright © 2009 Nancy K. Humphreys


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