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Murder at the Margin (1978)
Marshall Jevons

Contributed by "William E. Emba"

This is the first of the Henry Spearman murder mysteries (the others being THE FATAL EQUILIBRIUM and A DEADLY INDIFFERENCE--they can be read in any order). These unusual murder mysteries star Harvard economics professor Henry Spearman, who solves murders by elementary mathematical economics, of all things. In each case, Spearman identifies the culprit by something not adding up according to economics.

In each case, the reasoning is rigorous. The novels are also fair play, even to non-economists, in that Spearman at some point in his lecturing touches on the issue that will later be relevant. From the mathematical point of view, MATM offers explicit calculations that illustrate the theorems. (In TFE and ADI, the mathematical rigor is merely assumed.) As a mathematical bonus, MATM even has a literal prisoner's dilemma, with Professor Spearman explaining.

The novels, unfortunately, are somewhat amateurish, although they get better through the series. The dialogue and the characters are lifeless, and Spearman himself wants to lecture all the time. TFE also has a minor character who is a mathematician, with a rather implausible approach to reading journals, and who will be a disappointment to the mathematically minded reader, in that his role in the novel could very easily have had a mathematical angle, but was something rather lame instead. (The other faculty were more believably in character.)

Although the novels have two Nobel-prize winners (Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson) endorsing them as an educational economic read, there are some ghastly mistakes, although not plot related. In TFE, Professor Spearman notes with approving insight that a certain department store conducts its basement sales using, in effect, a "Dutch auction", in that items' price tags are lowered every week until someone finally buys. His insight is that the department store is thereby maximizing the "consumer's surplus" that they can extract from its customers. But Spearman is obviously unaware of the famous work of William Vickrey, which says that in general, all auctions are equivalent from the seller's point of view.

A more fundamental gaffe is Spearman's blaming economic forces for compelling him to devote his efforts to activities that generate the highest marginal return, like preparing articles instead of enjoying family time. Economists often makes some form of this mistake, confusing their models with reality. The scientific side of economics is supposed to come up with explanations of prices, employment, leisure, and so on. And to an impressive extent, consumers as utility maximizers does this rather well. But people (and this includes Harvard economics professors) are not under any such obligation to act according to such models, and large parts of contemporary economics is devoting to bridging this gap. Even worse in this instance, Spearman does not know the difference between a consumer and a corporation, thinking he's supposed to maximize his profits instead of utility.

For what it's worth, "Marshall Jevons" is supposed to be an obvious pseudonym (the author is actually two contemporary economists). It is derived from Alfred Marshall and Walter Stanley Jevons, two classical economists who were prominent for their bringing calculus into the field. "Spearman"'s name is taken from Charles Henry Spearman, the psychologist whose interests in intelligence testing led him to develop the theories of correlation and factor analysis.

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Works Similar to Murder at the Margin
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Calculus of Murder by Erik Rosenthal
  2. Advanced Calculus of Murder by Erik Rosenthal
  3. Los crímenes de Alicia [The Alice Murders / The Oxford Brotherhood] by Guillermo Martinez
  4. Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
  5. Murder by Mathematics by Hector Hawton
  6. Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin
  7. Bad Boy Brawley Brown by Walter Mosley
  8. Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer
  9. Maths a mort by Margot Bruyère
  10. The Catalyst [The Strange Attractor] by Desmond Cory
Ratings for Murder at the Margin:
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Mathematical Content:
1.33/5 (3 votes)
Literary Quality:
1.33/5 (3 votes)

TopicMathematical Finance,

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Exciting News: The 1,600th entry was recently added to this database of mathematical fiction! Also, for those of you interested in non-fictional math books let me (shamelessly) plug the recent release of the second edition of my soliton theory textbook.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)