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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Murder, mayhem and economics

I can't remember when I first found Marshall Jevons' (a.k.a. William Breit and Kenneth Elzinga) detective stories but as a budding economist, I got a huge kick out of the very thought of using economic analysis to solve a murder mystery. For those not familiar with these books, the protagonist is Henry Spearman, a professor of economics at Harvard who solves murder cases by applying economic reasoning. Even if you don't have the slightest interest in economics, they are fun and easy to read, which is part of what makes them such great tools for exposing students to economic thinking. They really make the point that thinking like an economist is about so much more than just money and markets.

Which is why I was excited to see that Ms.Y at Osborne High School in Marietta, Georgia wants to have her AP Econ students read Jevons' first book, Murder at the Margin. This is one of the projects I'm promoting for the DonorsChoose Blogger Challenge and Ms. Y seems like the kind of econ teacher that I wish I'd had in high school. Osborne is a high-poverty, high-minority school but as Ms. Y points out:
...our students are committed to learning. Every year our advanced placement classes grow in numbers with new students who want to go to college and see these classes as a way to challenge themselves and increase their chances of acceptance to college/university. Unfortunately funding for materials in these classes has a much greater demand than supply so some classes often find themselves going without the academic materials that would greatly assist their students.

For students learning economics, especially advanced placement level classes, real world application can be a struggle as they attempt to process new concepts and theories. To combat this problem, many teachers use non textbook readings to supplement these ideas and give students the opportunity to view economics in a non academic light...

Your help will ensure that my students get the opportunity to further develop their reasoning skills, understanding of economics and the economy and their application abilities which will serve them well in college or the work force.
You can help Ms. Y get these books for her students by donating on the DonorsChoose website. You can also check out the other economics projects I'm promoting, or search for other worthy projects.


  1. You know, I loved the *idea* of Murder at the Margin, but I really disliked the book. I thought it was a fair-to-poor mystery and had some bad economics (e.g., a scene I recall to this day in which our hero--whose name I have erased from my memory banks--attributes a lexocographic utility function to people at a cocktail party. And I thought the "explanation" of the murder realy messed up the concept of opportunity cost. But it's been, what, 30 years since I read it, and if I were to reread it, I might change my mind.

    Vastly preferable, to my mind, are the John Putnam Thatcher mysteries by Emma Lathen.

  2. It's been awhile since I've read them too (though I need to re-read them soon since they are among the options I gave my Econ for Teachers class for a book review!) but I have a similar memory. I know I had some issues with the econ concepts in the first book but I think I liked the 2nd and 3rd better. Guess I better pull them out and do a proper review! And I'll be checking out the Lathen books!


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