Troublesome siblings are everywhere in crime fiction. Evil twins, bad-boy brothers, sisters who have shamed the family. Sibling problems drive the plots of a lot of mysteries and thrillers.
Since 82% of Americans have siblings, and some degree of rivalry is the rule rather than the exception, it’s not surprising that this is such rich soil for writers – or that brother/sister problems strike a chord with readers.
My first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, has inspired a lot of readers to confide very personal things about their own lives. It’s a heady experience to have someone tell me, “I never really understood my relationship with my sister until I read your book.” My character Rachel’s ambivalent feelings toward her younger sister, Michelle, who is clearly their mother’s favorite, seem authentic to readers, and I’m always glad to hear that I “got it right” even though I was just trying to tell a good story, not lay bare the psyches of strangers.
Rachel’s sister is an angel compared to some fictional siblings. Cops in novels may be burdened with bad-seed brothers or sisters they’d like to keep secret. For example, in Denise Mina’s Still Midnight, her cop heroine dreads the collision of her professional duty with her shady brother’s illegal business. It’s only a small part of the story, but anyone who has ever cringed at a sibling’s misdeeds can relate.
Lisa Scottoline’s protagonist, attorney Bennie Rosato, is plagued by an evil twin who has burst into her life and wreaked havoc in two books, Mistaken Identity and Dead Ringer. This is sibling rivalry to the nth degree: Bennie’s twin wants her disgraced and dead.
The previously unknown sibling has also been used in a lot of novels. For example, Tess Gerritsen’s medical examiner, Dr. Maura Isles, didn’t know she had an identical twin until she found her mirror image sitting dead in a car outside her house at the beginning of Body Double.
Gerritsen’s Detective Jane Rizzoli has a less dramatic but painfully believable sibling problem. Her mother dotes on Jane’s worthless brother, while constantly finding fault with Jane and discounting her professional achievements. Only when Jane marries and produces a baby does her mother feel she has accomplished something admirable.
True, some protagonists have great sibs, untainted by competition for their parents’ love. Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon is close to her sister. Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott has almost a dozen brothers and adores them all. Others confide in siblings or even solve crimes with them. Conflict is more common, though, and often more realistic.
Developmental psychologists have observed that sibling rivalry starts as early as the first year of life. Even at that age, a kid can tell if he’s getting the smallest servings of mom’s attention and affection, or if he’s somehow being treated as special, more loved and admired than other children in the family. A child incorporates those differences, whether favorable or unfavorable, into his view of himself.
These early influences can make us stronger and prepare us to live in the wider world – or they can establish a pattern of juvenile rivalry that will last a lifetime. Many siblings forgive and forget and become friends as they grow up, but some remain competitive forever. How many middle-aged sisters do you know who argue over which will inherit some treasured possession from their mother? How many middle-aged brothers do you know who constantly try to outdo each other professionally and personally? How many adults, with children of their own, still dread family holiday gatherings because they know they’ll end up reenacting old rivalries and competing for their parents’ approval?
Is it any wonder that so many real-life murders are committed by relatives of the victims? And that toxic families are at the heart of so many crime novels?
Do you have a favorite “toxic family” mystery? Or a story of real-life sibling rivalry you can share?