Sibling rivalry is nothing new. Even when siblings have a decent relationship, there’s sometimes friction between them. And it’s not helped when parents say things like, ‘You know, your brother/sister never….’ Or when a teacher says, ‘You know, you’re not a bit like your brother/sister was.’ Those sibling issues can be really effective in crime fiction; they can heighten tension, add to character development, and even serve as a motive for all sorts of things.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), we meet the Lee family. Family patriarch Simeon Lee lives with his son, Alfred, and Alfred’s wife, Lydia, in the family home. The elder Lee wants his family to gather at the family home for Christmas. No-one wants to go, since Lee is an unpleasant tyrant. But he holds the purse strings, so everyone attends. That means extra work, of course, for Alfred and Lydia. And it means more when it turns out that Alfred’s brother Harry is also going to be there. The two have never had a good relationship. Harry is what used to be called a ne’er-do-well, who always seems to be in financial need, and who’s traveled all over the world instead of being a part of the family business. Alfred has taken over the family business (which wasn’t really what he wanted) and looks after his father. So, Alfred sees Harry as the cause of a lot of family trouble; Harry sees Alfred as a boring stick-in-the-mud. On Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, so he works with Superintendent Sugden to find the killer. Although Harry and Alfred’s strained relationship isn’t the cause of the murder, it’s an interesting sub-plot, and plays a role in the story.
There’s an interesting look at sibling tension in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are summoned (that really is the word for it) to a private island owned by a munitions tycoon, ‘King’ Bendigo. He’s been getting death threats, and his brother Abel, who helps run the company, wants the Queens to find out who’s responsible. One night during their stay, Bendigo is shot, although he is not killed. Oddly enough, he was locked into his hermetically sealed private office at the time, and the only other person there (his wife) did not handle a gun. What’s more, there’s no gun in the office. To add to the this, the gun that fired the bullet was in another room, where Bendigo’s other brother, Judah, was handling it. So, how did Bendigo get shot? As the Queens look into the matter, it becomes clear that this shooting is related to a past incident. And as Queen finds out about that incident, we see how sibling relationships and sibling tensions figure in.
Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is the story of brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. Born in rural Patrick County, Virginia, they are the sons of an alcoholic, abusive father. Gates is the older brother, so he tries to protect Mason as best he can – not always successfully. Mason feels he owes his brother, though, and that filial loyalty will come back to haunt him. As the boys grow, Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he has, and works hard in school. He gets a scholarship to law school and becomes an attorney. For his part, Gates squanders his considerable athletic ability and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments, and money he gets from the boys’ mother. One afternoon, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival Wayne Thompson. Later that night, the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. The quarrel reheats, and before anyone knows it, Gates has shot Thompson. Out of a sense of duty, Mason helps his brother cover up the crime. Years later, Gates gets a long prison sentence for cocaine trafficking and asks his brother for help. Mason, now the county prosecuting attorney, has had enough of cleaning up his brother’s messes, and refuses. That’s when Gates threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When Mason calls his bluff, Gates contacts the police, and soon, Mason faces indictment for murder. Throughout the novel, the brothers’ relationship is central to the plot. They have a shared history, and in some ways, camaraderie. But each resents the other, and that adds suspense and an important plot point.
When we first meet her, in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce is eleven years old. She lives in the English village of Bishops Lacey with her father and two older sisters, Daphne and Ophelia. The two older girls have a fairly solid relationship, although they do have their arguments and bad moments. Flavia, though, is another matter. For one thing, she’s younger than Daphne and Ophelia, and doesn’t share their interests in boys, clothes, friends, and so on. For another, Flavia is exceptionally intelligent, with a special knowledge of and passion for chemistry. To her sisters, she’s weird and annoying. To Flavia, Daphne and Ophelia are empty-headed and boring. The girls have their share of fights, and sometimes they play mean tricks on each other. Underneath, though, they are still family, and there are times when they stick together and help each other. That relationship is an interesting thread woven through the series.
In Rose Carlyle’s The Girl in the Mirror, identical twins Summer and Iris have grown up in wealth and privilege. As children, they were best friends, and on the surface, they still have a bond. But all is not as it seems. Summer has always been the more outgoing, successful sister, and at 23, she’s married a handsome man, Adam, and is living what many people would call the perfect life. Iris has recently broken off an engagement and has never been as self-assured as her sister. So, in her way, she’s at a disadvantage. The simmering tension between Summer and Iris comes to the fore when they learn that their father’s will stipulates that his vast fortune will go to whichever of his children produces an heir first. At first, it looks as though Summer will succeed, as she always has, since she is married, and Iris has no partner. Iris sees her chance, though, when Summer asks her to join Adam on a two-week trip to take the family yacht to the Seychelles. At the last minute, Summer joins them, and it’s not long before we see some of the resentment underneath the surface of the women’s relationship. And then Summer disappears. A search for her yields nothing, as you’d expect in open seas, and Iris makes the decision to take on Summer’s identity. But again, things are not what they seem…
Relations among siblings can be complicated and sometimes difficult. Even when it’s not a case of outright sibling rivalry, there can still be a lot of tension in those interactions, and that can make for fine ‘story fodder. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George Thorogood’s Get a Haircut.
10 thoughts on “Get it Together Like Your Big Brother Bob*”
You’re right, Margot – there’s nothing like a good sibling conflict to act as an excellent plot device!
There’s just something about siblings, isn’t there, KBR? So much good fodder there for a story!
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Ugh, as the youngest of four siblings, my teachers never lacked for comparisons, and not to my advantage! It’s a great plot device, especially when money and wills are involved. The one that springs to mind is another Christie – Percival and Lancelot Fortescue from A Pocketful of Rye. I feel any children blessed with names like those are bound to grow up a little twisted… 😉
I’ve often wondered why teachers do that, FictionFan – compare siblings to each other. It never does any good, and it certainly doesn’t spur students on to work harder or whatever. As you say, though, it is a great plot device, and can work really effectively when it’s done well. Thanks for adding in A Pocketful of Rye. It’s a terrific example of what I had in mind with this post. And as for those names? Yeah, they don’t bode well for a functional life… 😉
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I love mysteries (or in fact, any fiction) about families. With one brother and one sister, both younger than I am, I have taken part in plenty of sibling rivalries.
Hercule Poirot’s Christmas is a great example. The Girl in the Mirror sounds very interesting.
No doubt about it, Tracy. When there are siblings, no matter how close they are, there’s bound to be conflict, at least at times. I think it’s nearly unavoidable. I thought The Girl in the Mirror was a very interesting look at the dynamics between siblings, and how that impacts those involved. If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Margot, I think Martin Clark must have a thing about siblings because one of his other books – Mobile Home Living or something or other feature a pair. I’ll have to see if I like The Legal Limit a bit more than the one I tried!
That’s the thing, isn’t it, Col. Some books just don’t tick many (or any!) of the boxes. And, yet, if you try another book by the same author, it can be a completely different experience. Odd, isn’t it? If you do try The Legal Limit, I hope you do like it.
I love books with a brother-brother relationship though the only one that I can remember now is Hare Sitting Up by Michael Innes. Legal Limit and The Girl in the Mirror both sound very interesting, I’ll search for them
Oh, I haven’t read an Innes in a while, Neeru. Thanks for the reminder of his work. And there is something about that sibling relationship that can add a lot to a novel. Even when there isn’t jealousy or worse, that bond is fascinating to explore.