An interesting comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about some of the really interesting relationships we have: those with our adult siblings. Oh, not following Tracy’s blog yet? Please check it out. You won’t regret it; it’s a fine source of thoughtful crime fiction reviews among other things. Go ‘head; see for yourself.
Siblings know us in ways very few other people do. They may have different personalities, different outlooks and so on but they share common experiences. In fact, our relationships with our siblings are very often the longest-term relationships we have. And what’s really interesting (and this is what Tracy mentioned that got me to thinking) is what happens when siblings grow up. Adult siblings’ relationships are deeply affected by childhood experiences; if you have siblings you know what I mean. It can take a real effort of will to see one another with adult eyes, so to speak. Siblings’ relationships can be very complicated too. Some people are close to their adult siblings; others avoid them. But siblings are part of the human experience and they’re a rich source of plot points and characters when it comes to crime fiction. In fact, there are so many good examples that this one post won’t even come close to touching on all of them. But here are just a few to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we meet Charles and Theresa Arundell. Neither of them is particularly good at managing money and both of them are fond of having it. So when their wealthy Aunt Emily dies, they’re desperate for their shares of her fortune. But Emily Arundell has left all of her money to her companion Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. Before she died, Miss Arundell wrote to Hercule Poirot asking his help in a delicate matter which she never specified. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing to investigate though, Miss Arundell has already been dead for two months. That doesn’t stop Poirot; he discovers that Miss Arundell didn’t die naturally as had been assumed. Charles and Theresa Arundell are among the most likely suspects and as Poirot interviews them, we see how these siblings support each other while at the same time being quite aware of each other’s weaknesses.
There’s an interesting look at adult sibling relationships in Dorothy Sayers’ Clouds of Witness. Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister Mary is engaged to be married to Denis Cathcart. When he is murdered, Wimsey’s older brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, is charged with the crime. Wimsey investigates, partly because he is interested in criminal investigation but mostly because his brother is in trouble. He discovers that more than one person had a motive to kill the duke. In the course of this novel Mary meets Wimsey’s friend Inspector Charles Parker and the two develop a relationship. And in Strong Poison we learn that they plan to marry. It’s interesting to see how Mary Wimsey’s brothers react to this relationship. On the one hand they’re as protective of her as though they were all still children. On the other, Peter Wimsey knows that Mary is now an adult who will make her own choices in life. It’s an interesting thread that runs through those novels.
There’s a really interesting look at how complex sibling relationships can be in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. Brothers Mason and Gates Hunt are the sons of an abusive alcoholic and that affects them deeply. Gates, the older son, tries to protect his younger brother as best he can. Mason feels strongly the debt he owes to his brother and that has a very important role to play in what follows later. Gates has quite a lot of athletic ability but he squanders all of the opportunities that brings him and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare money and on money he gets from his mother Sadie Grace. Mason on the other hand takes advantage of every opportunity he gets. He gets a scholarship to law school and ends up becoming an attorney. Then one night Gates and Mason are coming home from a night out when they encounter Wayne Thompson, who is Gates’ romantic rival. An argument they had earlier flares up again and before anyone really knows what’s happened Gates has shot Thompson. Mason feels the burden of debt to his brother so he helps Gates cover up the crime. Life goes on for the brothers and the crime is never officially solved. Mason Hunt becomes a prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Virginia while his brother turns to drug dealing. Then Gates is arrested for and convicted of cocaine trafficking. He begs his brother to help him get out of prison but this time Mason refuses. Then Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll claim that Mason shot Wayne Thompson. When Mason calls his bluff Gates does as he’s threatened. Now Mason is indicted for murder and he’ll have to figure out how to clear his name.
And then there’s Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon, a National Park Service Ranger. She’s been assigned to several different areas of the country, and she’s seen all sorts of both beauty and horror. But always in her life is her sister Molly. Molly is a New York City-based psychotherapist who tries her best to be there for her sister. Anna treasures their relationship but that doesn’t mean either is blind to the other’s faults. Anna for instance doesn’t like the fact that Molly is a smoker. Molly gets infuriated because she feels Anna puts herself in far too much danger. Underneath their differences though the two really do love and depend on each other.
One of the things that can add to already-complex sibling relationships is the resentment adult siblings can feel about long-ago incidents. You could call it a form of sibling rivalry. There are a lot of novels where one sibling seems to ‘have it all’ and the other feels left behind and that resentment has consequences. Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood explores that theme on several levels. In that novel, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team look into the twenty-year-old disappearance of Callum Payne when his sister Orla apparently commits suicide. She’d begged Scarlett to look into the case, but Scarlett didn’t do much about it at first as Orla Payne was drunk and incoherent when she first made the request. It’s partly Scarlett’s feelings of guilt and partly her professional sense of responsibility that lead Scarlett to pursue both the disappearance and the circumstances of Orla Payne’s death. It turns out that much of what happens in this novel is tied in with the complex relationships between siblings, and the way that can lead to resentment.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and his half-brother Mickey Haller have a very interesting relationship. For several reasons they didn’t really know each other for much of their lives. Now that they’ve established contact and a relationship, they work together on cases in several novels. And that makes sense as Bosch is a cop and Haller is an attorney. They didn’t grow up together though, so one thing that’s interesting in the novels featuring them is that although they’re biologically brothers, they’ve had to establish a relationship beginning in adulthood. It casts quite a different light on the sibling dynamic and it adds a solid thread to the series.
In Peg Brantley’s Red Tide we meet Jamie Taylor, a bank loan officer and volunteer rescue dog handler. She gets involved in a case of multiple murders when her dog Gretchen discovers a series of recently-buried bodies in a remote field near Aspen Falls, Colorado. Jamie’s sister Jacqueline ‘Jax’ is a local medical examiner who’s called in when the bodies are discovered. As the two interact we learn about their past. Their mother Star was murdered ten years earlier and their father Bryce has basically disappeared from their lives as he’s tried to search for the truth about his wife’s death. One the one hand, the two sisters work closely together as they unravel the mystery of how the victims in the field died and who killed them. When they discover the truth they find themselves in grave danger and have to work even more closely together to face that danger and bring the killer to justice. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean the sisters have no issues between them. Jamie is unhappy with the way her sister has managed her personal life; Jax is married to an abusive philanderer and so far, hasn’t left him. Jax doesn’t like the idea of her sister ‘managing her life.’ It’s an engaging portrait of an adult sibling relationship.
And there are many others, too (I know, I know, fans of Camilla Läckberg’s Ericka Falck and her sister Anna). Space doesn’t permit me to mention them all. But if you have a sibling I probably don’t have to anyway. You already know about life with adult siblings.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Night Ranger’s Sister Christian. Why’d I choose this one? It was written for and about drummer Kelly Keagy’s younger sister Christy.