By chance, two new novels featuring economist heroes arrived recently. This is a rare occurrence, so to get two together was striking, and perhaps says something about the zeitgeist – that there is enough interest in the economy, for obvious reasons, to make fiction worth a go.
One of the newcomers is Something for Nothing by Michael W Klein, a professor at the prestigious Fletcher School at Tufts University. Its hero is a recently-minted Columbia PhD, whose only job offer is a temporary contract at a minor liberal arts college. His efforts to publish enough to secure a permanent job – ah, the allure of the tenure-track – bring him into contact with an evangelical Christian think tank. Misunderstandings and mishaps ensue but all ends well. Our economist hero finds a job, and love too. It’s an enjoyable book, well plotted and with moderately rounded characters. I liked the realistic detail, such as the delays waiting for elevators in hotels at the annual meetings of the American Economic Association, where job interviews are held in their hundreds. This book’s market might be a niche one, however – I’m not sure about the wider appeal of the career travails of the would-be academic economist. This doesn’t quite make it as a campus novel of wider interest because its focus is so firmly on the world of economics rather than the world of the university.
The second of these recent novels is The Economics of Ego Surplus: a novel of economic terrorism by Paul McDonnold. The hero here is a graduate student working on his dissertation. As the summer vacation approaches, he is recruited by the FBI to assist them in investigating a terrorist attempt to bring about the collapse of the US economy and western consumerism through a stockmarket crash and run on the dollar. (Does it need a terror mastermind to accomplish this, one asks, reading the Financial Times.) So we are in the thriller genre, and this novel is a page turner, while at the same time explaining (sometimes with footnotes – unusual, for a thriller) basic economic concepts. I enjoyed the author’s evocation of Dallas and its environs. However, the plot has some infelicities, and – like many in this genre – weak characterisation.This needn’t put off someone looking for a light read for a plane journey; this book is better than many on the airport bookshelves.
Besides, both authors are to be commended for aiming to bring economics to life in fiction. The vast expanse of life affected by the subject is almost untouched by novelists. The other economics novels I’ve read are: The Invisible Heart and The Price of Everything, both by Russ Roberts; The Burning by Thomas Legendre; and the Marshall Jevons detective mysteries featuring economist Henry Spearman, such as The Fatal Equilibrium and Murder at the Margin.
All are written by economists about economists. As far as I’m aware, though, no literary novelist has yet portrayed the economist as hero.