Friday, August 27, 2010

He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother*

A fascinating and eloquent recent post from Rayna at Coffee Rings Everywhere got me thinking about the unique link there is between siblings. Even siblings who don’t have much in common share a bond that often ties them together. Brothers and sisters may fight and may be quite different, but very often they also support each other and have ways of looking after each other, even as adults. Since the bond between siblings is so tightly interwoven into our lives, it’s not surprise that we also see a lot of it in crime fiction, and it comes through in lots of different ways.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, we meet Arthur and Alice Charpentier, siblings whose mother owns a boarding house. Staying in that boarding house are Enoch Drebber and Joseph Stangerson. When Madame Charpentier learns that Drebber has made advances on Alice, she evicts both Drebber and Stangerson. Drebber returns to the boarding house later and makes another advance on Alice. Arthur goes to his sister’s defense and tries to attack Drebber, who manages to escape. Arthur Charpentier’s standing up for his sister gets him arrested for murder when Drebber is later found dead. Sherlock Holmes is called in on the case by Inspector Gregson, who wants his help in explaining some strange aspects of the murder. When Stangerson is also found murdered, it’s clear that this is more than a simple case of one sibling looking out for the other. In the end, Holmes finds out who really killed Drebbera and Stangerson and why.

n Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we meet siblings Charles and Theresa Arundell. They’re the nephew and niece of wealthy Emil Arundell, who dies suddenly of what seems at first to be liver failure. However, before she died, Emily Arundell wrote a letter to Hercule Poirot asking him to investigate a delicate matter. She wasn’t specific in her letter, but Poirot and Hastings visit the village of Market Basing anyway to find out what’s behind Miss Arundell’s letter. By the time they get there, Miss Arundell has already died, but Poirot decides to continue the investigation. He finds that all of Miss Arundell’s relations, including Charles and Theresa, were desperate for money. In fact the brother and sister planned at first to try to upset their aunt’s will, which in which she’s left her fortune to her companion. In the end, Poirot finds out who was desperate enough to murder Miss Arundell. Throughout the novel, we see the interesting interplay between the siblings, and we see how each one has an interesting insight into the other and how each tries to protect the other.

Christie also explores sibling relationships in Appointment With Death. In that novel, the Boynton family takes a holiday in the Middle East. Mrs. Boynton, the matriarch, is a tyrannical mental sadist who’s kept her family cowed for years. Sister and brother Carol and Raymond Boynton are desperate to free themselves and their younger half-sister, Ginevra (Jinny) from their stepmother’s grip. When Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies while the family is at Petra, everyone thinks that she died of heart failure. That makes sense, too, since she was elderly and in poor health. However, it’s soon discovered that she was poisoned. Now, Raymond and Carol Boynton come under suspicion as Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate. As Poirot interviews the members of the Boynton family, we can see the way the Boynton children care about each other and try to protect each other.

We also see that kind of protectiveness in James W. Fuerst’s Huge. That’s the story of twelve-year-old Eugene “Huge” Smalls. He’s a bit of a social misfit who dreams of having his own detective agency. Huge gets his chance one day when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the nursing home where she lives. As Huge collects clues and tries to figure out who’s responsible, he begins to suspect that the culprit is a local boy who Huge thinks has been harassing his sister, Eunice “Neecey.” One night, Neecey has been invited to a party and Huge decides to sneak into the party because his favorite suspect is there. He attacks the other boy in a futile (and funny, actually) attempt to stand up for his sister. Throughout this novel, we also see how Neecey tries to stand up for her brother, who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. It’s an interesting dynamic, especially as Huge finds that as he gets closer to finding out who defaced the sign, he also makes some important discoveries about himself.

In Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia and Willie novels, we see the interesting relationship between Sylvia Thorn, retired Florida circuit court judge, and her brother, accountant and Viet Nam era veteran Willie Grisslejon. In The Prairie Grass Murders, Willie is visiting the old family farm in Illinois when he comes upon a man’s body. At first, Willie is accused having murdered the man, and is arrested. He calls his sister, who comes to Illinois to free her brother and before either of them know it, they’re embroiled in a murder case, a land dispute and some old memories. Throughout this novel, too, it’s obvious that Sylvia and Willie care deeply about each other and try to take care of each other. That relationship provides a layer of interest and engagement in the novel.

We see that same kind of caring in Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, in which Oxford historian Daniel Kind tries to help his sister Louise when she believes she may have seriously injured, even killed, her lover, Stuart Wagg. Wagg disappears after Louise claims she attacked him with scissors, and Daniel tries to help her by asking DCI Hannah Scarlett for assistance. As it turns out, Wagg’s disappearance is related to a six-year-old drowning death that Scarlett and her team are investigating, and to another recent death. As Scarlett and Kind find out who’s behind the deaths, we also get to see quite a lot of the caring, loving, yet complicated relationship between Kind and his sister. We also learn more about their father, former police officer Ben Kind through their conversations

Of course, not all sibling relationships are loving or protective. There’s a very complicated relationship between Virginia attorney Mason Hunt and his brother Gates in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. When the two were young men, they were involved one night in a shooting in which Gates Hunt shot Wayne Thompson in an argument over Gates Hunt’s then-current girlfriend. Out of a sense of brotherly protectiveness, Mason helped his brother cover up the crime. Mason Hunt also felt a sense of duty, because Gates had protected him from their abusive father when both were boys. Now, years later, Gates Hunt is sent to prison for cocaine trafficking. He begs his brother, who’s become a commonwealth attorney, to help get him out. Mason refuses, because Gates is almost blatantly guilty. Moreover, Gates has wasted his adult life, turning to petty crime and living on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and money he gets from their mother. Gates turns on his brother then, and threatens to accuse him of the murder of Wayne Thompson. When Gates makes good on his threat, Mason has defend himself against the charge.

And then there’s the Longley family, who feature in Ruth Rendell’s first novel as Barbara Vine, A Dark-Adapted Eye. This ultra-respectable, middle-class class family shies away from any hint of scandal. But the family is hiding some ugly secrets. Vera Longley Hilliard was hanged for murder, and the secret of the murder lies in the family relationships. The family does its best to remain in denial about it until years later when investigative journalist Daniel Stewart decides to do a story on the murder. He asks Faith Longley Severn, Vera’s niece, to help him uncover the truth, and as she does, we get to learn about the Longley family and the relationship between sisters Vera and Edith Longley.

Martin Edwards explores dysfunctional sibling relationships in The Cipher Garden, in which DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the ten-year-old murder case of landscaper Warren Howe. Howe was found murdered by his own scythe and at first it was assumed that his wife Tina was responsible. She had motive, too, since Howe was an abusive and unfaithful husband. But there wasn’t enough evidence for the police to pursue a case. Now, some anonymous notes accuse Tina of the crime, and Scarlett and her team look into the murder. So does Oxford historian Daniel Kind, whose cottage garden was designed by the landscaping firm that employed Howe. Each in their own way, Kind and Scarlett find out what really happened to Howe. As they do, we see the complicated and dysfunctional relationships among the members of Howe’s family, including his daughter, Kirsty and his son, Sam. It’s unsettling to see in this novel how Howe’s lifestyle and death has damaged his family, and it makes for a fascinating undercurrent.

A sister or brother can be one’s best friend. Those relationships, though, can also be complex, problematic and worse. But if one has siblings, it doesn’t matter what sort of relationship one has with them, that bond affects everyone. Which of your favorite crime fiction novels feature siblings?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the name of a popular song written by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell.


  1. I remember two well. One is by Caroline Graham entitled The Killings at Badger's Drift and they feature two siblings. I won't go into it much because I don't want to spoil it.

    Second is the Agatha Christie mystery, The Moving Finger. It's about poison pen letters I believe. There is a brother and sister relationship there that I thought stuck with me for awhile.

    I like brother and sister relationships in novels. I really liked Edward Martin's brother and sister relationship.


  2. Clarissa - I like brother/sister relationships in novels, too, and Martin Edwards does an excellent job, I think, at portraying Daniel and Louise Kind.

    I'm glad you mentioned The Killings at Badger's Drift. It is a very well-done portrait of those siblings. I almost brought it up, but like you, I didn't want to spoil it. I'm happy that you mentioned it, though.

    And yes, The Moving Finger is another solid sibling portrayal. You're spot-on, too; that's the one about the anonymous letters.

  3. Private by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro features twin brothers - Jack and Tommy Morgan. They are completely different and have been pitted against each other from a young age by their overbearing father. Their interaction definitely affect others around them.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Thanks for your example. The story of those twins is exactly the sort of thing I'm getting at in this post: siblings' relationships may be negative, positive, complicated, etc., but they are always important parts of who those siblings are.

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  6. I am reading Teresa Solana's charming crime satire A Not So Perfect Crime which features twin brothers who keep this a secret as one pretends to be an aristocrat. They are private consultants to the wealthy who want highly confidential matters dealt with in a confidential way, with no paperwork or invoices.

  7. Megan's first book DIE A LITTLE dealt with the bond between a brother and sister. I really wondered how much of it was based on her own relationship with her brother who was very similar to the character.

  8. Norman - Oh, thanks for that example. I want to read that one, too. Folks, you can read a fine review of A Not So Perfect Crime from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading. The premise is certainly exactly the kind of focus on siblings that I had in mind when I wrote this post.

  9. Patti - Oh, that must be so interesting to see those similarities in relationships between what Megan wrote and what you saw when she and her brother were growing up. And thanks for mentioning Die a Little. That's one I confess I haven't read, and I must repair that gap. Soon.

  10. Clarissa already mentioned the one I was thinking of as I read it - the Moving Finger.
    And not to forget the brothers who first got me interested in mysteries - the Hardy Boys!

  11. Rayna - Oh, yes, of course! The Hardy brothers are an excellent example, aren't they, of siblings in crime fiction. I'm so glad you brought them up : )!

  12. I am reading one right now where I expect a sister may play an important role, but I don´t know yet.

    I like Martin Edwards´ books featuring siblings, but the best one is A Dark-Adapted Eye. So thrilling!

  13. Dorte - Oh, I look forward to your review of the book you're reading. And yes, A Dark-Adapted Eye is absolutely engrossing, isn't it? It's a really gripping story of family relationships. Folks, if you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so.

  14. Margot, as I catch up on my blog-hopping, I find such wonderful surprises. Thanks for mentioning Sylvia and Willie in this post.

    I also have a dear brother, although he's younger (Willie is Sylvia's older brother) and nothing like Willie. I think he was disappointed I didn't write him into the Willie character.


  15. Patricia - First, I apologize for not responding to you sooner; I didn't get a chance to go back through my posts 'till now. Sylvia and Willie are a terrific brother/sister team, and I really enjoy both of their characters. I also like that they're similar in some ways, but unique, too. One can tell they were raised by the same parents, but they're different; you did that quite well.

    I know what you mean about writing family members into books; I haven't deliberately written any of my siblings into my books, but I'm sure that aspects of them have slipped in here and there.