The Secret Life of Ken Elzinga
Professor has written four murder mysteries under a pseudonym
Professor Ken Elzinga would kill to teach you economics. On paper, at least.
The revered UVA professor—who has taught more than 40,000 UVA students since 1967—has all the while been penning murder mysteries on the side, under the pen name Marshall Jevons, with a protagonist who solves crime using economic theory.
Now, Elzinga is about to publish his fourth novel and the first written without his late co-author, Trinity University professor William Breit, with whom he shared the Marshall Jevons pseudonym. In The Mystery of the Invisible Hand, due out in September by Princeton University Press, economist-sleuth Henry Spearman arrives as a visiting professor at a university in San Antonio where there’s been an art heist, followed by the death of a talented artist-in-residence.
The novels offer a far different vehicle for imparting basic economic principles than a dry textbook or lecture.
“Students are pulled along because of the plot line, but they learn economics along the way,” says associate professor Lee Coppock, a colleague in UVA’s economics department who began assigning Elzinga’s first novel, Murder at the Margin before even coming to UVA.
“They learn concepts that sometimes are difficult to teach in the classroom,” Coppock says. “They learn these concepts inside of a novel and see them applied at the same time.”
Elzinga first ventured into mystery writing back in 1978, when he and Breit, a mystery-novel enthusiast who was also at UVA at the time, hatched the idea fresh of co-writing a scholarly book on antitrust penalties. They chose their pseudonym by combining the names of two influential 19th-century economists, Alfred Marshall and William Stanley Jevons, and they based their central character on legendary economist Milton Friedman.
“I wanted a book that taught economics. Bill wanted a book that was a good mystery,” says Elzinga.
Both authors enjoyed the process so much they collaborated for a second Henry Spearman tale, The Fatal Equilibrium (1985); and then a third, A Deadly Indifference (1995).
To this day, Elzinga assigns The Fatal Equilibrium as a supplement in his Principles of Microeconomics class, although some students don’t realize the author is their teacher due to the pseudonym.
The books have been translated into seven languages and have appeared on the reading lists of more than 400 college courses.
The books are a welcome supplement to textbook material, says Emily Snow (Col ’15), an economics major. “I thought it was a really creative way for him to get those points across and reinforce what I had learned in the classroom,” she says.
Although The Fatal Equilibrium was assigned reading for her, she remembers “wanting to sit down and read it,” whereas reading the textbook was something she had to discipline herself to do.
Elzinga and Breit were in the early stages of working on their fourth book when Breit became ill; he died in 2011 after a long battle with a degenerative brain disease. Elzinga’s editor encouraged him to go on and write the book.
On the heels of completing the manuscript, Elzinga was selected to serve as a judge for the Mystery Writers of America’s prestigious Edgar Awards, named for Edgar Allan Poe. (As many know, Poe was one of UVA’s earliest students, in 1826.)
“The UVA connection makes it very special for me,” says Elzinga, who compares the Edgars to the Grammys and the Oscars for mystery writers.
All that remains mysterious now is when Elzinga, 73, might slow down. His Principles of Microeconomics class, which is capped at 1,050 students, fills up every year and has a waiting list of hundreds. He continues to provide fresh cookies and sodas during office hours, and he stays until every student who shows up has been seen.
Among his students are the second generation in some families. He has watched as former students have gone on to become professors at Harvard, federal judges—even the commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission.
Not only did he have Maureen Ohlhausen, the current FTC commissioner, in class but he’s had all four of her children, too.
As for the future, Elzinga provides just one clue: “I’m going to retire when the Ohlhausen grandchildren show up,” he says with a laugh.