The Murder Game: De-Realization and the Uncanny in Golden Age Detective Fiction


  • Maurizio Ascari University of Bologna


The Golden Age theorization of detective fiction lays the emphasis on the clue puzzle as an intellectual pastime, akin to crossword puzzles and chess. Narratives are conceptualized as a game in which the writer competes with the reader. This period is characterized also by publications such as The Baffle Book (1928)—which challenges readers to turn into armchair detectives—and by the vogue of murder-themed party games. This Golden Age penchant for games will be discussed as amounting to a “de-realization” of crime and detection, as testified by novels such as Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934), where the country house setting combines with the staging of a parlor game during which a guest is killed, with an uncanny overlap between play-acting and reality. An aspect of the Golden Age sanitation of crime narratives, this form of de-realization pivoting on games recurs in Golden Age texts with different nuances, from the comic to the sinister, notably when coupled with the uncanny, arguably providing a substitute for the sublime that marked the Gothic and early crime fiction.