|To the "means-motive-opportunity" method of
ferreting out criminal behavior, add something called marginal
Trinity University economics professor William Breit relaxes
in his home. He and co-author Kenneth Elzinga soon may begin
their fourth murder mystery. |
It's an approach favored by William Breit, retired Trinity
University economics professor and co-author of a series of murder
mysteries in which the sleuth is an economist.
"Crime is a business," Breit said. "It's a way for people to gain
benefits. If you lower the cost for a given benefit, a prediction
can be made that crime will increase."
Breit, along with co-author Kenneth Elzinga of the University of
Virginia, has written three novels under the pseudonym Marshall
Jevons. The two have stretched those efforts over 20 years and two
time zones, between full-time teaching and Elzinga's work as an
antitrust consultant around the Microsoft case.
Elzinga says he's coming to San Antonio soon with a folder full
of ideas for a possible No. 4.
Their fictional hero is Henry Spearman, an impish, balding
Harvard professor who never misses an opportunity to pontificate on
the economics of everyday life. The novels find the protagonist, and
his ever-patient wife, Pidge, unexpectedly surrounded by murder and
Starting from the belief that most human actions are self-serving
— that is, designed to maximize marginal utility (some might call it
happiness) at the lowest cost — Spearman figures out who among the
suspects has behaved in way that flies in the face of that notion,
thus betraying guilt.
Part Lt. Columbo, part Milton Friedman, the often didactic
Spearman lays out principles early in the books that later will
reappear in a different form, holding the clue to the whodunnit.
The result has been warmly received. After the publication of the
first book, "Murder at the Margin," the Wall Street Journal opined,
"If there is a more painless way to learn economic principles,
scientists must have recently discovered how to implant them in ice
The writers' own role model concurs.
Milton Friedman, now in his 90s, was something of a household
name during the latter part of the 20th century. Winner of the 1976
Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, he served on Ronald
Reagan's economic policy advisory board, where his libertarian
advocacy for deregulation and small government was much appreciated.
"I don't deny paternity," Friedman said Monday by phone from his
northern California home. Spearman is recognizable "mostly due to
height and mode of reasoning.
"The analysis was correct in economic terms. It's deductive
reasoning, looking for indirect effects, " he added. "Inferring what
would maximize a criminal's utility, (you guess) what clues you
should look for."
Economics isn't just about money or inflation, said Jorge
Gonzalez, chairman of Trinity's economics department. "It's a way of
thinking. That's what makes economics so powerful."
Breit is a San Antonio native and an alumnus of Jefferson High
School and the University of Texas at Austin. He returned home in
1983 after 18 years teaching at the University of Virginia, where,
with Elzinga, he frequently wrote on antitrust issues.
A scholarly article was turned into a book on the subject in
1976, asserting that white-collar crime was prevalent because the
benefits outweighed the likely penalties.
That theory can be applied to any criminal behavior, a notion he
bounced off Elzinga and his wife when the couple joined the bachelor
Breit in a vacation to St. John, in the Virgin Islands, in the
His suitcase loaded up with murder mysteries, Breit talked
excitedly about the stories to his companions over dinner.
In Harry Kemelman's Rabbi Small series, the learned man used
Talmudic reasoning to decode criminal motivation. Agatha Christie's
Miss Marple sifted, ever observant, through small-town gossip.
But why, Breit lamented, were no economists represented in the
"Bill is so creative," Elzinga recalled. "I said, 'You should
create a character and do a mystery based on that idea.' He asked me
if I would be willing to partner with him. Without much thought,
based on the madness of the idea and affection for Bill, I said
The team stayed on at the resort for an extra week, sketching out
a plot based on characters they observed.
In "Murder at the Margin," a demanding hotel guest is done in. A
former Supreme Court justice follows suit. Island police arrest the
obvious suspects, but by applying his ever-ready economic
principles, Spearman sniffs out the true killers.
The writers concocted a pseudonym by combining the names of two
noted 19th century British economists, Alfred Marshall and William
Stanley Jevons — just in case, Breit said, reviewers savaged their
First published by a small academic press in 1978, the Princeton
University Press later reprinted the title.
"The Fatal Equilibrium," a tale of murder among Harvard's tenured
professors, followed in 1985. A decade later "A Deadly Indifference"
The novels are used in beginning economics classes around the
country and have been translated into several languages.
When not solving crimes, Spearman visits the legendary basement
of Filene's department store to see what shoppers are doing with
their consumer surplus. He muses upon the "interdependent utility
function" he shares with his wife, a universally understood concept
but, he concedes ruefully, less pop-song-friendly than love.
Actor and writer Ben Stein, host of the former Comedy Central
quiz show and son of the late economist Herbert Stein, said in an
e-mail that the novels are deftly crafted literature that
professional crime writers would envy.
"But their insights and explanations about economics, and
especially about economic teaching in the academy, are spectacular."