When They Built You, Brother, They Broke the Mold*

brothersAn interesting post from Cleo, at Cleopatra Loves Books, has got me thinking about the roles that brothers play in fiction. There are plenty of stories about the bonds we may have with sisters, and that’s all to the good. But our bonds with brothers are also important, and they’re different to the bonds we have with sisters.

Bonds with brothers play important roles in crime fiction. And it’s interesting to see how they’re woven into plots in different ways. That’s realistic, though, if you think about it. There are many different kinds of relationships we could have with a brother.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he has an older brother, Mycroft. Dr. Watson doesn’t learn about Mycroft’s existence until The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter. In that story, Mycroft has heard a strange story from Mr. Melas, who lives on the floor above him. When Sherlock and Dr. Watson visit Mycroft at the Diogenes Club, they hear the story, too. It seems that Mr. Melas was abducted for a specific reason: he is bilingual in Greek and English. And someone forced him to translate during a very unsettling interrogation. This problem leads to a case involving greed and inherited property. And it shows an interesting side of Sherlock Holmes. In one scene, he and his brother are looking out a window and have a conversation about two men that they see:

“Look at these two men who are coming towards us, for example.’
‘The billiard-marker and the other?’
‘Precisely. What do you make of the other?’
The two men had stopped opposite the window. Some chalk marks over the waistcoat pocket were the only signs of billiards which I could see in one of them. The other was a very small, dark fellow, with his hat pushed back and several packages under his arm.
‘An old soldier, I perceive,’ said Sherlock.
‘And very recently discharged,’ remarked the brother.
‘Served in India, I see.’
‘And a non-commissioned officer.’
‘Royal Artillery, I fancy,’ said Sherlock.
‘And a widower.’
‘But with a child.’
‘Children, my dear boy, children.’
‘Come,’ said I, laughing, ‘this is a little too much.”

The conversation shows that private sort of language that brothers can develop. It also has hints of the competition, however friendly, that come up between brothers.

There’s an interesting brother/sister relationship in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AK Poirot Loses a Client). In that novel, wealthy Emily Arundell has a potentially fatal fall down a flight of stairs. As she’s recuperating, she begins to think her fall was no accident. So, she writes to Hercule Poirot to ask him to investigate. She’s not specific in her request, but Poirot is intrigued by her letter, and he and Captain Hastings visit Miss Arundell. By the time they get there, though, it’s too late. She has died of what’s put down to liver failure. Poirot isn’t satisfied, though. And, at any rate, he feels a responsibility to his client, although she has died. So, he and Hastings investigate the matter. They find that this death was a murder, and that more than one person had a very good motive. Two of the suspects are Miss Arundell’s niece, Theresa Arundell, and her brother, Charles. Both are desperate for money, and Charles had even said something to his aunt that easily be could construed as a threat. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how Theresa and Charles try to protect each other, even as neither completely trusts in the other’s innocence. They understand one another at a very deep level.

In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, we meet brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They’ve been raised in an abusive environment, but they’ve survived. Gates did his best to protect his younger brother, and Mason feels a sense of duty towards Gates for that reason. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity he gets, and ends up going to law school on a scholarship. For his part, Gates squanders his considerable athletic talent, and ends up living on money he gets from his mother and from his girlfriend’s Welfare payments. One day, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The fight starts again later that night, when the Hunt brothers are coming home from a night out and encounter Thompson. The argument spirals out of control and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates has shot Thompson. Mason still feels a strong sense of loyalty and gratitude to his brother, so he helps Gates hide the gun and cover his tracks. The years go by, and the Hunt brothers move on in life. Mason becomes a prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gates starts having brushes with the law, culminating in an arrest for cocaine trafficking. He’s given a lengthy sentence, and asks his brother to help get him out of prison. This time, Mason refuses to support his brother. Gates threatens him, saying that if he doesn’t help, Gates will implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason knows that his brother isn’t above making good on that threat, and that’s exactly what happens. Now, Mason has to defend himself against a murder charge. One of the themes in this book is brotherly protectiveness and the loyalty that can engender – even when it can prove dangerous.

Fans of Arnaldur Indriðason’s series featuring Reykjavík Inspector Erlendur can tell you that Erlendur is haunted by an experience he had as a boy. He and his younger brother, Bergur, were caught outdoors in a blizzard. Erlendur survived the storm, but Bergur was lost. The storm was so severe that no trace of him was ever found. Elendur has been carrying the weight of guilt and responsibility ever since, and a big part of the reason for that is that he is the older brother. A part of him feels that he should have protected Bergur, even though, as an adult, he understands that it’s not as simple as that.

And then there’s William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. This coming-of-age story features thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother, Jake. It’s the early 1960s in small-town Minnesota, and the Drum brothers are looking forward to baseball, going down to the local river, and relaxing. Everything changes when a boy that the Frank and Jake knew is killed on a railroad track. People say it was an accident, but it may not be. Then, murder strikes their own family. When that happens, the brothers have to depend on each other in ways they haven’t before. And they learn new things about each other. It’s a fascinating look at the way brothers perceive one another.

Relationships with brothers can be complicated. But they’re also fascinating. So, it’s little wonder we see them so often in crime fiction. I’ve only had space here for a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and visit Cleo’s terrific blog. Fine reviews await you there.

ps. The ‘photo is of the brother/sister dance at a friend’s wedding. It was a truly lovely wedding, and I couldn’t imagine a better depiction.

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


Filed under Agatha Raisin, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Martin Clark, William Kent Krueger

18 responses to “When They Built You, Brother, They Broke the Mold*

  1. In the DCI Banks series by Peter Robinsoon, Alan Banks has an estranged brother Roy who has given him a lot of grief and trouble in the past. Yet in ‘Strange Affair’ he receives a strange message from him and goes to London to investigate his disappearance. It’s been a while since I read this, but I thought the ambiguous love/hate relationship between the two was very well done.

    • I haven’t thought about that book in a while, Marina Sofia! Thank you for the reminder. And yes, it’s a really interesting and ambiguous relationship. In that sense, it reminds me of the relationship that John Rebus has with his brother in the Ian Rankin series. Those relationships really can be complicated.

  2. Oh thank you Margot for finding me so many good examples of brothers in crime fiction. I particularly like the Dumb Witness which has the brother and sister protecting each other (I need to find a copy of this one to read) as this was exactly the kind of relationship I was hoping for. I think siblings that aren’t the same sex can often have a more uncomplicated relationship than those of the same. Thank you also for your kind words, and the picture you chose is perfect!

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your excellent blog, Cleo. And I really do appreciate the inspiration. You bring up a really interesting point, too. Siblings of the opposite sex do have a different relationship to those of the same sex. There isn’t, perhaps, the competition that there can be with same-sex siblings? Whatever the reason, they are really different sorts of relationships. Oh, and I do recommend Dumb Witness if you get the chance to read it. It’s an interesting example of family dynamics, among other things. And I have to admit, I do like that ‘photo, though I say it myself.

  3. That’s interesting, Margot! When I read Cleo’s post, I commented that brother/sister relationships seem to be pretty rare but I could think of a few brother/brother ones, and the examples you’ve picked suggest that might be the case. I’d like to see more brother/sister relationships in fiction – but I’m probably biased because I’m pretty close to my own brother who is nearer to me in age than either of my sisters, so we shared a lot of childhood experiences ‘the girls’ were too old for. (My sisters were known as ‘the girls’ and my brother and I were ‘the kids’!)

    • That’s a really interesting background, FictionFan! And I do think a lot of brothers and sisters are close, especially if they’re close in age. Hmmm….you ask a good question about whether there are more brother/sister fictional relationships or brother/brother ones…hmm…I’m honestly not sure. Now I think of it, there are several brother/sister relationships I didn’t mention here (lack of space). Emma Viskic’s Resurrection Bay has a good one. So does Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Both of those involve the sleuth and an opposite/sex sibling. I need to think about this more, clearly…

  4. Among my favourite brothers in crime fiction are Rowland and Wilfred Sinclair, the gentleman artist cum sleuth (and black sheep), and the responsible landowner respectively. Their creator Sulari Gentill dies a great job of depicting a relationship between them that is equal parts exasperation and (understated) affection.

    • Oh, that is such an excellent set of brothers, isn’t it, Angela? I’m so glad you mentioned them, too, because I should have. Folks, if you have not yet tried Sulari Gentill’s fabulous series, please do. You’re in for a treat. And you’re right, Angela: the relationship is so interesting because it’s understated affection but also has a really effective touch of exasperation.

  5. Some interesting examples of the bonds of brotherly love, Margot. It seems there’s more competition between brothers than between sisters or at least it shows itself more. Maybe sisters are just a little sneakier about it. 🙂

    • Maybe they are, Mason :-). I do think that the bonds between brothers are very different to the bonds between sisters. And that’s different, in turn, to the bonds brothers have with sisters. All of that makes for a really interesting layer in a story.

  6. kathy d

    Well, as I’m thinking about it, most of my favorite series feature “only” detectives, with no siblings, as Guido Brunetti and V.I. Warshawski.
    However, a few complex relationships arise between brothers and sisters. In Denise Mina’s Alex Morrow books, the detective’s brother is a major criminal. This causes a lot of problems for her.
    In Kati Hiekkapelto’s Anna Ferete series, this police detective has a brother who is a total mess, and gives her a lot of headaches.
    But then there’s the good half-brothers in Michael Connelly’s books, Harry Bosch, cop, and Mickey Haller, lawyer. They became closer when working on cases together. I like this relationship. Hope there’s more to come.

    • I like that relationship between Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch, too, Kathy. I think Connelly does that quite well. You have other great examples, too, of the bonds that siblings have. And for the sleuth, I think having a brother adds an interesting dimension to the character. And it can be an effective way for the author to give some backstory.

  7. tracybham

    I am glad Angela mentioned Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, because I had forgotten about the brothers in that series. Those books are now being published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press and I can read more of them more easily.

  8. The first book that comes to mind is Lamentation by Joe Clifford. One brother is self-assured with a steady job; the other brother has a drug problem, and the cops think he committed murder. So the “good” brother has to unravel the mystery in order to save his down-and-out brother from going to prison. The family dynamics between the two added a great deal to the success of the book. In the sequel, December Boys the author uses the same “special sauce.” And again it works. Excellent books, by the way.

    • Ooh, sounds interesting, Sue. And I like that premise, where the ties between the brothers are an important part of the dynamics of the story. Thanks for the suggestions.

  9. Margot, I have read a few Westerns where brothers, sons of ranchers and new settlements, take pride in their families and are protective of their sisters. This is culturally a universal phenomena. A reader can draw comfort from such sibling relationships.

    • I hadn’t thought about that, Prashant, but you’re right. And I’m glad you brought that up. Brothers have important roles to play in Westerns, just as they do in other genres. It is something that’s probably universal, too, as you say. I don’t know, personally, of any culture where brothers don’t have roles to play in the traditional family structure.

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