Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thrillers on Economics -- Updated

Noah Smith has garnered a lot of attention for his recent post on economics in science fiction. Not surprising given that much of the genre involves thought experiments about alternate ways of organizing society. Furthermore, lots of economists are fans of the genre (Paul Krugman even wrote an introduction to a recent edition of the Foundation Trilogy).

I doubt you'll find as many fans in the dismal science of crime novels but for those of you out there, here's a post we ran a while back about books that look at econ and business from the noir side, followed by some titles that occurred to me since the initial posting:
Of the many crime novels built around businesses, the best might be Murder Must Advertise, a Lord Whimsey by Dorothy L. Sayers. The story is set in a London ad agency in the Thirties, a time when the traditional roles of the aristocracy were changing and "public school lads" were showing up in traditional bourgeois fields like advertising.

Sayers had been a highly successful copywriter (variations on some of her campaigns are still running today) and has sometimes been credited with coining the phrase "It pays to advertise." All this success did not soften her view of the industry, a view which is probably best captured by Whimsey's observation that truth in advertising is like yeast in bread. 
But even if Sayers holds the record for individual event, the lifetime achievement award has got to go to the man whom many* consider the best American crime novelist, John D. MacDonald.

Before trying his hand at writing, MacDonald had earned an MBA at Harvard and over his forty year writing career, business and economics remained a prominent part of his fictional universe (one supporting character in the Travis McGee series was an economist who lived on a boat called the John Maynard Keynes). But it was in some of the non-series books that MacDonald's background moved to the foreground.

Real estate frequently figured in MacDonald's plots (not that surprising given given their Florida/Redneck Riviera settings). His last book, Barrier Island, was built around a plan to work federal regulations and creative accounting to turn a profit from the cancellation of a wildly overvalued project. In Condominium, sleazy developers dodge environmental regulations and building codes (which turned out to be a particularly bad idea in a hurricane-prone area).

Real estate also figures MacDonald's examination of televangelism, One More Sunday, as does almost every aspect of an Oral Roberts scale enterprise, HR, security, public relations, lobbying, broadcasting and most importantly fund-raising. It's a complete, realistic, insightful picture. You can find companies launched with less detailed business plans.

But MacDonald's best book on business may be A Key to the Suite, a brief and exceedingly bitter account of a management consultant deciding the future of various executives at a sales convention. Suite was published as a Gold Medal Original paperback in 1962. You could find a surprising amount of social commentary in those drugstore book racks, usually packaged with lots of cleavage.

* One example of many:
“To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.” - KURT VONNEGUT
(If you'd like to learn more about MacDonald, Andrew Gelman doesn't exactly recommend this book.)

I omitted MacDonald's own probable choice for his best business story "The Trap of Solid Gold" because I misplaced my copy of End of the Tiger before I got to it. It is very much on my to-read list.

I also left out Donald Westlake's novel about union organizers, Killy and I have no idea why. This is straight Westlake (as compared with comic Westlake and tough-guy Westlake) and it's quite good, with both characters and institutions growing more morally ambiguous as the story progresses.

You can get an interesting take on the way many economies actually worked in the novels of Eric Ambler, where ill-equipped, often stateless protagonists try to do business (sometimes legally) while navigating the corrupt, Byzantine bureaucracies of multiple countries. Hard to believe that before Ambler, the face of the British spy novel was John Buchan.

Lawrence Block is an exceptionally intelligent writer who can be counted on for sharp observations. "Batman's Helpers" (along with "the Cold Equations" and Block's friend Westlake's Levine stories, one of the most memorable of the anti-genre genre stories) addresses, of all things, copyright while The Burglar who Painted like Mondrian plays a series of witty games with the question of value.

I know I'm missing lots a examples. Maybe Smith will do another science fiction post in a couple of years and I'll take another whack.

P.S. Andrew Gelman nominates George V. Higgins as the crime novelist with the most focus on economics. Having slept on it, I'm wondering if we should stretch things to include game theory. That might lead to an interesting take on Hammett's Red Harvest and its many imitators. In terms of strategically supplying or withholding information in multiplayer games, Erle Stanley Gardner came up with all sorts of interesting variations in his novels and, if the anecdotes are to be believed, in his actual law practice as well (those who like more focus on character should start with the Cool and Lam books). Maybe someone could write a paper of game theory in Black Mask.

P.P.S. Prisoner's dilemma.


  1. The early Perry Mason books often revolve around a stock scam of some sort (and play off the difference between stocks sold in interstate markets from those sold in intrastate markets--California must have had some weird lcorporate law is all I can say).

    The extended series of (23) books by "Emma Lathen," featuring a bank VP, John Jutnam Thatcher, all deal with the economics of various industries. (One of the pseudononymous authors was an SEC economist, if my memory is still workingl the other was a lawyer.) (

    Paul Erdman wrote a 9 books (no continuing characters, as I recall), revolving around financial catastrophes of one sort or another. (

    I think it's fair to mention that one of the continuing characters in John D. McDonald's Travis McGee books was Meyer, who is descrined as an economist. I keep meaning to re-read all the books and transcribe "Meyer's" pronouncements (many of which, again if my memory is still working, contradict other of his pronouncements, and many of which are also nuts.)

    I'm sure I'll remember others as soon as I hit "publish."

    1. Meyer was the fellow who lived on the boat named the John Maynard Keynes.

      Erdman reminds me that George Goodman (a.k.a. the other Adam Smith) started out as a novelist writing about financial matters. Not sure if it involves crime, however.

  2. Don Winslow's California Fire & Life and Power of the Dog examine the insurance and drug economies in his usual hyper-cool and entertaining fashion...

    1. Good call. Insurance holds a special place in crime fiction going beck at least to Double Indemnity.

    2. Another great insurance story is Thomas Perry's Death Benefit

  3. Dick Francis has a lot of material about how businesses work in his books, such as the wine merchant's trade in "Proof." Also, what about Paul Erdman? He wrote his Edgar-winning novel while in jail.

    1. I thought we'd mentioned Erdman earlier in the thread. If not, we should have.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Davis Liss, "A Conspiracy of Paper" and "The Coffee Trader," deserves mention

  5. Read the short story "Witch's Money" by John Collier. You can find it in a few anthologies.

  6. Thanks for the generous mention! I at once thought of a couple of other examples. One of my own favorite sidebars is the discussion of large-print publishing in The Devil Knows You're Dead, and a major plot component in Even the Wicked revolves around viatical transactions. AndI'm sure there are other examples I'm not thinking of!