9 Thrillers About Complicated Sibling Dynamics

Literature


Domestic thrillers hinge, frequently, on a romantic relationship gone wrong. Anger, obsession, lust. But the dark bonds between siblings can be just as compelling—the rot at the core of a seemingly perfect family, the myriad ways we can be in the dark about those who share our blood. Five of my six novels feature main characters with a sibling. In four of those stories, the relationships are fraught, sometimes beyond repair. Consequently, you might imagine me as a writer with a charged sibling dynamic of my own, working out my neuroses on the page. You wouldn’t be right—but you wouldn’t be entirely off-base. 

Since childhood, I’ve been drawn to sibling stories because I don’t have one of my own. No brothers or sisters, no cousins close in age. As an only child, I didn’t especially long for a sibling of my own. (What I wanted was a dog, a miniature collie to be exact.) But I was fascinated by siblings out in the wild—children who did not receive their parents’ sole focus, who had a playmate living in their home, sharing their toys, sharing their experiences. I spent a lot of time imagining what that life must be like, captivated by the lure of the unknown. 

As a writer of thrillers, murder mysteries, and domestic suspense, I’ve never adhered too closely to the old dictum write what you know. Write what scares you, write your obsessions—these dares have always had more pull.

My latest domestic suspense novel, The Split, explores the strained dynamic between Jane Connor—the older sister, responsible, practical, unfulfilled—and Esme Connor-Lloyd—four years younger, flighty, creative, and maddeningly aloof. When Esme informs Jane she’s left her high society husband and needs a place to stay, Jane’s response splits her life into two realities: one in which Esme comes to live with Jane in their childhood home, forcing the sisters to reckon with the darkness in their past and the distance between them now, and the other in which Esme vanishes into the night, leaving Jane tortured by regret.

Whatever draws us to sibling stories—our own experiences or our lack thereof—I am far from alone in my obsession. The subcategory of thrillers and domestic suspense novels featuring complicated sibling relationships is thriving. Here are nine contemporary thrillers featuring three sets of twins, three fires, three pairs of estranged sisters, and the myriad sticky, sometimes deadly, bonds between siblings. 

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach

When Ava receives the news her twin Zelda is dead—burned alive after dropping a lit cigarette in the family barn, her body unrecognizable and officially unidentifiable—she is pulled back to her Finger Lakes hometown from Paris and into a clever literary scavenger hunt arranged by her sister, ostensibly from beyond the grave. Zelda is witty, wild, a lover of mind games, and so as Ava follows the trail of cryptic, sometimes twisted clues laid out for her, she has to wonder if her sister’s death is as is seems—or if her disappearance has been staged to teach Ava a lesson in family loyalty.

We’ll Never Be Apart by Emiko Jean

In this twisty twin sister mystery, we meet Alice Monroe, a seventeen-year-old inmate at a mental facility on Savage Isle, Oregon. Alice has been committed, and charged with manslaughter, but her twin sister Cellie set the fire that left Alice with second degree burns and killed Alice’s boyfriend Jason. The doctor at the mental ward says he believes Alice about what happened that night, but he doesn’t seem entirely trusting. Probably because years ago, Alice took the fall for another fire her sister set, and ever since they’ve been stuck with the label “the pyromaniac twins.” When Alice hears rumors that Cellie has been caught, and is being held elsewhere at Savage Isle, she resolves to find her reckless sister and seek her revenge for Jason’s life.

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Amy is the baby of the Lee family—shy, sheltered, and too young to remember the hard years when her parents were new immigrants to New York, faced with the difficult decision to send their older daughter, Sylvie, to live with relatives in the Netherlands until they could save up enough to raise both sisters at home. Now, Sylvie is missing—vanished on a trip to Amsterdam to visit her dying grandmother one last time. Sylvie—the beautiful sister, the smart sister, the overachiever—suddenly gone. When Amy begins asking questions about her sister’s last weeks in Amsterdam, what she finds is a mystery. She told friends she was flying home to New York. She quit her job and told no one. Alarm growing, Amy flies to Amsterdam to retrace her sister’s footsteps, searching for Sylvie—and the truth.

Truth Be Told by Kathleen Barber

Josie’s twin sister Lanie saw Warren Cave pull the trigger on the gun that killed their father. Warren was tried, convicted, and for years, the case has been closed. But now, a new podcast claiming the case isn’t as open and shut as Josie and her family have long believed turns Josie’s world on its head. Then her estranged mother’s sudden death pulls Josie back to her Midwestern hometown—and to the family she chose to leave behind, the family she’s lied about to her boyfriend in New York. There’s darkness in Josie and Lanie’s history, and with Reconsidered: The Chuck Buhrman Murder stirring up the past, that darkness isn’t going to stay buried.

Like A Sister by Kellye Garrett

When Lena learns that her younger sister Desiree has been found dead—on a playground near Lena’s home in the Bronx, ostensibly from an overdose—the two women have been estranged for two years, in part due to Desiree’s drug use. But Lena never thought the silence between them would last forever, and now that Desiree is gone, what the cops are saying about her death doesn’t add up. Lena sets out to find answers to two questions—why was her sister coming to see her after so long apart, and how did she actually die?—and her investigation unlocks a landslide of hard questions and dark secrets about race, family, celebrity, media, class.

The Better Sister by Alafair Burke

In another twisty tale of estranged sisters, the murder of Chloe Taylor’s husband Adam brings her messy older sister Nicky—Adam’s first wife and mother of Chloe’s stepson Ethan—back into her life. (Any questions about why these sisters have drifted apart?) The murder is originally attributed to a home invasion at Adam and Chloe’s luxe Hamptons house, but soon sixteen-year-old Ethan becomes a suspect, breeding doubt among the Taylors and forcing the sisters to come face to face with the darkness in their family’s past.

Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six by Lisa Unger

When Hannah’s father produces a final group of presents from beneath the Christmas tree, DNA testing kits for the entire family, no one will own up to leaving the gifts, all tagged from Santa. It’s clear to Hannah that something is amiss, but the holiday ends without incident, and the tests are largely forgotten. Several months later, Hannah, her husband, her brother Mako and his wife, and her best friend and her new boyfriend all gather at a luxurious cabin in the remote Georgia woods for a weekend curated by Hannah’s brother, complete with a private chef, a hot tub, and loads of pot and wine. Mako is prone to excess, enjoys flaunting his generosity, but is that all this weekend is about? It doesn’t take long for the idyllic getaway to turn dark—a missing guest, a creepy host, a terrible storm, an accident—and soon the darkness in Hannah’s family begins to bubble to the surface.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

In this campy, Lagos-set thriller, the relationship between sisters Ayoola and Korede is anything but simple: one is a femme fatale, a woman with a trail of bodies behind her. The other is calm, collected, and practical, disposing of the dead and mopping up blood. Korede never wanted to be her sister’s protector, her after-the-crime fixer, but when she finds herself at the house of her sister’s most recent dead boyfriend—Femi, Ayoola can’t remember his last name—bleaching the bathroom tiles and wrapping his body in bedsheets, she has to admit that this is the person she has become to her sister. When Korede’s longtime work crush, Tade, sets his sights not on Korede, but on her sister, Korede is forced to take a long, hard look at the killer Ayoola has become and how Korede has been enabling her.

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

The last time seventeen-year-old Jamie saw his older sister Cate was the night before her sentencing. Two years in juvie for burning down their neighbor’s horse barn. It wasn’t the first instance of her out of control behavior, just the one that landed her behind bars. The siblings both survived a difficult childhood and the traumatic death of their mother, which left them both scarred. Jamie got help. Therapy, meds. Cate didn’t. Now, Cate is nineteen and she’s been released early from juvie. Before she was sent away, Cate made a lot of enemies in Danville. Made a lot of people nervous. She has no reason to come back—except she has. For Jamie. Cate says she knows the truth about their past. Cate is going to make sure Jamie listens.

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