Monday, March 29, 2010

Thrillers on Economics -- a quick digression

I've been working on a series of posts about the economics of crime novels (see here and here) and it got me thinking about economics in crime novels. I'm no expert but here's my incomplete survey.

George Goodman (a.k.a. "Adam Smith") once bemoaned the absence of business in American literature with the notable exception of John P. Marquand. With all due respect to the estimable Marquand (himself no stranger to the pulps), Goodman might have found what he was looking for if he had spent less time in high-end bookstores and more time in his corner drugstore looking at the books with the lurid covers.

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

1 comment:

  1. Mark:

    There's also the genre of business thrillers, for example most of the novels of the frustrating-because-he's-clearly-so-talented-but-keeps-spewing-out-crap Colin Harrison.

    Speaking of John D. MacDonald, I once read a somewhat interesting but lazy biography of the man. Considering MacDonald's busy career, laziness is the one trait that's really inexcusable in his biographer!