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Crime novels for economists

Following up on this post by Noah Smith on economics in science fiction, Mark Palko writes on economics in crime fiction.

Just as almost all science fiction is ultimately about politics, one could say that just about all crime fiction is about economics.

But if I had to pick one crime novelist with an economics focus, I’d pick George V. Higgins. In one of his novels, his character Jerry Kennedy had a riff on the difference between guys who get a salary and guys who have to work for every dollar. But, really, almost all his novels are full of economics.


  1. Mark Palko says:

    I have a feeling that, if I went back and reread Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, etc. with this in mind, I’d find endless examples. On a related front, have we talked about the Hard Case imprint? They do an exceptional job digging up deserving but often forgotten authors like this fellow:
    Of Williams’s twenty-two novels, sixteen were paperback originals—eleven of them Gold Medals; he is described by Gorman as “the best of all the Gold Medal writers.”[8] Pulp historian Woody Haut calls Williams the “foremost practitioner”[9] of the style of suspense that typified American pulp literature from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s: “So prolific and accomplished a writer was Charles Williams that he single-handedly made many subsequent pulp culture novels seem like little more than parodies.”[10] Fellow hardboiled author John D. MacDonald cites him as one of the most undeservedly neglected writers of his generation.[11] O’Brien, singling him out as especially “overdue” for “wider appreciation,” describes Williams as a stylist consistently faithful to “the narrative values which make his books so entertaining and his present neglect so inexplicable.”[12]

    • WB says:

      Jim Thompson is probably the most diverse and complex of the original hardboiled writers. On the one hand, he wrote The Killer Inside Me and Pop. 1280–two books that provide unflinching portraits of sociopaths. What Coolridge said of Iago, that he was driven by “motiveless malignity,” is applicable to many of Thompsons’s protagonists. Economics and politics are irrelevant to understanding these characters. They are evil, pure and simple, and would act upon their evil impulses regardless of their socio-economic circumstances.

      On the other hand, Thompson also wrote Cropper’s Cabin, which provides a detailed examination of race, class, and the sharecropper community in Oklahoma. This novel is The Grapes of Wrath of crime fiction and ultimately is more focused on describing Okie society than on telling a taut suspense story.

      While Hammett and Chandler are phenomenal writers, they never produced the range of novels that Thompson did.

  2. maurile says:

    If you want crime novels with an economics focus, check out Marshall Jevons.

  3. merian says:

    Well, I’m not sure that all crime fiction is about “big” economics, but certainly a whole lot of crime fiction explores the socio-economics of living in a particular community and location. As probably a little whimsical choices I’d throw in Dorothy L. Sayers’ “Murder must advertise” and the whole series about European art history (and art markets) by Iain Pears (The Raphael Affair, The Titian Committee, The Bernini Bust, The Last Judgement, Giotto’s Hand, Death and Restoration, The Immaculate Deception).

  4. ezra abrams says:

    last time i reread some of the american classics, found Travis McGee unreadable, and greatly preferred Lew Archer and the nameless detective/sam spade to Raymond Chandler

    and Lew Archer isn’t about money or politics – it is about the sins of the father are visited unto the children

    And I thought the Higgens novels were about respect, about being a man; the first one is all about what happens when you are not a stand up guy

  5. Spooky says:

    The crime series that is the most about economics are the Nero Wolfe books, because that series is not really about mysteries, but about the business that solves them.

  6. ezra abrams says:

    i just recalled, isn’t there a series about a VP at a NYC bank ?
    like (thank you google)

  7. Helen Dewitt says:

    Which is the novel with riff?

  8. Helen Dewitt says:

    Sorry, just a wild surmise, but I take it the book in question was Penance for Jerry Kennedy.