But When It’s Your Brother Sometimes You Look the Other Way*

There’s something about siblings. Relationships between them can be very complex (if you have siblings, you might already have experienced that). On the one hand, there’s often a strong sense of filial obligation. On the other, it can be very challenging to look out for a sibling. After all, we all have faults, and it’s not always easy to live with those faults. If we look at crime fiction, we can see how this sibling relationship plays out in all of its intricacy, and it can make for an interesting layer of character development and even story arcs.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and the police to find a multiple murderer. Before each killing, Poirot receives a cryptic note announcing the day and place of the murder. Even with these warnings, though, the police haven’t been able to track down the culprit. The second victim is 23-year-old Betty Barnard, who worked as a waitress. When her body is found on the beach, Poirot and Captain Hastings visit her family. Betty’s older sister Megan has just arrived from London to be with her parents, and her first reaction to Poirot and Hastings (whom she thinks are reporters) is to brush them off rudely and protect her younger sister’s reputation. Her sense of duty to her sister’s memory is strong. And yet, once she learns that the visitors are not reporters, but associated with the police, she has this to say about Betty:

‘‘Betty,’ she said, ‘was an unmitigated little ass.’’

It turns out that Megan was exasperated at her sister’s flightiness and by the fact that she was a flirt (although not, as it used to be said, ‘the weekending kind.’) As Poirot and Hastings learn more about this complex relationship between the sisters, we see how Megan was both supportive of her sister, and thoroughly annoyed with her.

Julia Keller’s Bell Elkins has a very conflicted relationship with her older sister Shirley. They grew up in Raythune County, West Virginia, where Bell’s returned to become the county prosecutor. Her childhood was traumatic, and that’s left her with scars. It’s also left her with a strong sense of duty to Shirley, who took drastic steps to try to help Bell. Shirley’s recently been released from prison, and is supposed to check in with her parole officer, find a job, and otherwise behave responsibly. Instead, she drinks, doesn’t look hard for work (not that there’s a lot available), and sometimes disappears for a few days without letting Bell know where she is. On the one hand, Bell feels a real sense of obligation to and even love for Shirley. On the other, she gets angry and frustrated at the way her sister refuses to get her life together. It all makes for some serious arguments and an interesting story arc in this series.

Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit introduces us to brothers Mason and Gates Hunt, who grew up in rural Patrick County, Virginia. They had a painful childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father, but they managed to survive, with Gates protecting his younger brother as best he could. As the years went by, Gates squandered every opportunity he had, and ended up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. Mason, on the other hand, worked and studied hard, got a scholarship to law school, and ended up becoming the commonwealth prosecutor for Patrick County. Because of their history, Mason feels a strong sense of obligation to his brother, which is why he helps Gates cover up the accidental murder of a romantic rival. But Gates has become a drug dealer, and Mason has gotten tired of his erratic lifestyle. Years later, Gates is arrested and convicted in a case of cocaine trafficking. He begs Mason to help get him out of prison, but this time, Mason refuses. Now, Gates threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved shooting he himself committed. When Mason continues to refuse to help, Gates carries out his threat, and Mason is investigated for the murder. Throughout the novel, we see how Mason feels he has a duty to Gates. At the same time, though, he hates what Gates has become.

Fans of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus will know that Rebus has a brother, Michael. The two have a very awkward relationship. As we learn in Knots and Crosses, Rebus sees them as

‘…brothers without any sense of brotherhood.’

As the series goes on, there’s a story arc concerning the brothers, and I don’t think it’s spoiling things to say that Michael ends up staying with Rebus in The Black Book. It’s a complex, conflicted relationship, and an interesting mix of filial obligation and the reality that the two brothers have almost nothing in common, and little sense of closeness. Yet, in their ways, they look out for each other.

In Kate Rhodes Crossbones Yard, we are introduced to London psychologist Alice Quentin. She and her brother William ‘Will’ grew up with a violent, abusive, alcoholic father, and the experience has deeply scarred both of them. Yet Alice has created a life for herself. She has her issues, but she’s functional, and has a steady life. Will, on the other hand, does not. He has mental health problems, and that’s led in part to his use of drugs. He finds it hard to manage his life, and that’s very hard on his sister. As you can imagine, looking out for Will is a full-time job in itself, and it’s hard for Alice to manage everything. At the same time, she loves Will, and feels an obligation to protect him. She lets him park his van on her property, so he’ll have a place to live, and she checks on him to make sure he takes the medication he needs, and so on. You could argue that she enables him. Alice is conflicted, but she feels her obligation strongly.

And that’s the thing about sibling relationships. There are, of course, plenty of positive, loving relationships between siblings who are also friends. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Still, even when siblings exasperate, hurt, or alienate each other, they still feel a sense of obligation. And that interpersonal drama can make for a strong plot line or story arc.    

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrol.

 

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

8 thoughts on “But When It’s Your Brother Sometimes You Look the Other Way*

  1. Totally agree, Margot. I’ve used siblings in my own writing, and played on the bond they shared. The stakes immediately raise when one sibling goes missing, especially a twin. 😉

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    1. Oh, that’s true, Sue! In fact, there’s a John Hart novel, The Last Child. that deals with exactly that plot point. Recommended if you get the time. And yes, siblings are always an interesting topic to explore in writing.

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  2. Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey has a very interesting take on the relationship between two brothers, Margot. I won’t say any more … And in The Widow’s Cruise by Nicholas Blake (which I have just reread), there are two sisters whose lives have taken them in very different directions. A fascinating topic!

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    1. Thanks, Christine – I think it’s a really interesting topic, too. And thanks for mentioning Brat Farrar. I couldn’t agree more about the way brotherhood is explored there. I actually thought of using that one, but it would have been difficult without giving away spoilers.

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  3. No examples springing to mind, but I agree sibling relationships give a lot of scope for stories. Something about being brought up together makes people remain connected even when they turn out to have little in common in later life.

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    1. You put that really well, FictionFan. There is a connection between people when they’ve grown up together like that. And that bond seems to be there, even when the people have almost nothing in common, or even hurt each other. It’s a complex relationship.

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  4. Let’s go to the aristocracy here! Lord Peter Wimsey has a good relationship with his sister – which improves as the series goes on, when she marries his great friend. But things are more chancy with his brother the Duke of Denver. But in Clouds of Witness, he does rush to investigate when the Duke is under suspicion of committing a murder. Lord Peter is determined to clear his name. But then – oh no! – can he best do that by accusing his sister? Quite the sibling dilemma!

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    1. That is a great dilemma, Moira! I’m so glad you included it. And it shows that sometimes very strange relationship people can have with their siblings. I do like Wimsey’s relationship with Mary; it feels authentic if that makes sense. And it makes for a solid support for his friendship with Parker.

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