If you have at least one sibling, then you know that siblings can be very, very different in temperament and personality, even if they’re the same sex and close to the same age (even twins have their differences). This is arguably even more the case as siblings get older and have different experiences. Sometimes it’s surprising how two people raised by the same parents at roughly the same time and in the same years can be so strikingly different, but it happens.
In crime fiction, those differences can add interesting layers to characters. They can also make for solid plot points. And that’s not to mention the tension that can build when two very different people interact.
In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, we are introduced to brothers Meredith and Philip Blake. Right from the beginning, they’re different in temperament, and that only increases as they become adults. Meredith, the older brother, is very interested in herbs and herbalism as well as chemistry. He’s not much interested in business or the pragmatic. So, as his brother points out, it’s just as well he’s the older brother, and inherits the family home and an allowance. Phillip, the younger of the two, is a very successful businessman. Some people might call him a philistine, but he’s done well for himself. The two get caught up in a murder when their friend, famous painter Amyas Crale, is poisoned one afternoon. Crale’s wife, Caroline, is immediately suspected, and with good reason: her husband was having a not-very-hidden affair with a young woman named Elsa Greer. There’s evidence against Caroline, too. In fact, she’s arrested, tried, and convicted. A year later, she dies in prison. Sixteen years after that, the Crales’ daughter, Carla, hires Hercule Poirot to clear her mother’s name. Carla is sure her mother was innocent and wants to prove it. Poirot interviews all five of the people who were on hand at the time of the murder, including the Blake brothers. He also gets written accounts from each person. From those, he works out who really killed Caroline Crale and why.
Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit is the story of brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They grew up in the same home, with an abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who did the best she could under the circumstances. But they couldn’t have turned out more differently. Mason has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s had and has gotten a full scholarship to law school. His older brother, Gates, has squandered his considerable athletic talent, and is now living on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and on money he gets from his and Mason’s mother. One afternoon, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument tapers off, but it starts up again later that night when the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. Things get more and more heated, until before anyone knows what’s happening, Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of filial loyalty, Mason helps his brother hide what’s happened, and life goes on for them both. Years later, Gates is arrested for cocaine trafficking, and is sentenced to a long prison term. He asks his brother to help get him out, but Mason refuses. Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help, he’ll implicate him in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. Mason calls his brother’s bluff and is soon indicted for a murder he didn’t commit. Now he has to clear his own name and decide what to do about his brother.
In Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point, we meet Belize-born brothers Patrick and Leo Varela. They’ve never been really similar, and when they become adults and move to Miami, they’re even less so. Patrick takes up a career in politics and shows real promise. He’s getting plenty of attention and is poised for national success. Leo isn’t as interested in that sort of life. He is a poet who works in a care home for those with mental illness. The brothers have little in common, and don’t see each other very often. But they are drawn together in a web of suspense when Freddy Robinson, an old friend from Belize, pays Leo a visit. Freddy wants Leo to release one of the people in his care, because the man may have information on illegal political procedures that could implicate Patrick. Freddy’s ‘business associates’ want that information. At first, Leo demurs. But then, Freddy hints that everyone has secrets, and that he’ll reveal what he knows about the Varela brothers if Leo doesn’t cooperate. And he knows plenty. It turns out that the Varelas are hiding a dark secret from their past; if it gets out, it could be disastrous. Leo tells Patrick about Freddy’s visit, and things soon spin out of control.
They do in Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket, too. Melbourne-area brothers Wally and Darren Keefe love cricket. They’re very good at the game, too. And, as they get older, they begin to get national and then international attention for their skill. But there the similarities between them end. Wally has strong focus and discipline. He’s intent on being the absolute best in the game. Darren has a great deal of natural talent. He’s inconsistent, though, and his personal life doesn’t have the discipline that his brother’s does. When he’s good, he shows once-in-a-generation skill, but he isn’t reliable the way his brother is. Their two different personalities mean the brothers react very differently when they become professionals and learn about the dark side of cricket. And those differences lead to real tragedy.
In Caroline Overington’s Sisters of Mercy, journalist Jack ‘Tap’ Fawcett gets interested when he learns that a visitor from England, Agnes Moore, went missing during a visit to Australia. Her daughter, Ruby, has made a public appeal for help, and Fawcett writes about it. That’s when he starts receiving letters from the missing woman’s younger sister, Sally Narelle ‘Snow’ Delaney. Through those letters, and through what he finds out through other sources, Fawcett learns that these sisters are completely different. For one thing, they’re far apart in age. But it’s more than that. It’s their temperaments and world views, too. As the story evolves, and we learn more about these women, we learn about the factors that have made them so different, and how that has contributed to some dark tragedies in the novel.
There are also two very different siblings in Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind. In that novel, contract archaeologist Chloe Davis and her business partner, Bill, escort several of their students to Kaipura Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They’ve gotten permission to excavate the remains of a religious community that burned down in the 1880s. For Chloe, it’s a homecoming of sorts, since shew grew up in the area. But it’s not a joyful one. One of the many complications is that a development consortium, River Haven, wants to create lifestyle blocks on the land where the dig will take place. But they can’t do that until the land is properly excavated. And Chloe’s cousin Shane is a part of that consortium. Another major challenge is Chloe’s sister, Phaedra, who owns a house in the contested area. The two sisters are very different in temperament and outlook, and they’ve estranged for some time. That relationship plays a role as readers learn more about the religious group whose building burned – and about its connection to a more modern murder, and some family-ancestry secrets.
See what I mean? I’m sure you knew it already. Even when siblings are of the same sex and grow up close in age in the same household, they can turn out to be very different people.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Liam Lynch’s Two Frogs.