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The Long, Unsettling Tradition of Twins in Crime Fiction


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Our fascination with twins (and particularly identical twins) likely dates back to the dawn of humankind, as evidenced by Romulus and Remus, Artemis and Apollo, Shakespeare (Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors), the Cheeryble Brothers in Nicholas Nickleby, all the way through to contemporary literature.

Monozygotic (aka identical) twins make up approximately 0.3% of the world’s population. But, thankfully, they are significantly more prevalent in crime fiction.

When I ponder fictional twins the first image in my head is that of the Grady twins in the Overlook Hotel. Stephen King’s The Shining and Stanley Kubrik’s screen adaptation are both seminal pieces of work. They feature several strong themes – isolation, suffering for your art, the supernatural, dysfunctional families – and yet one of the most striking visuals is the Grady twins holding hands in a corridor. 

Twins often develop their own private language. Cryptophasia (‘twin talk’) is a specific form of Idioglossia (a secret language, in this case shared between siblings). Sometimes this means twins only use the language of their parents later on. They simply have less need it, for a while at least, because they have each other.

In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Margo and Nick Dunne are non-identical twins (also known as fraternal or dizygotic). Margo (or ‘Go’) is vital to the mechanics of this intricately-plotted story. She is our way in, our relatable lens, our access to Nick, our trusted guide through a twisted tale. In a book with two fascinating but quite dreadful main characters, Margo acts as our guide. It is her conscience that we connect with (she’s appalled when she finds Nick cheating on Amy, and horrified when she realises Nick will stay with his wife). The openness of their twin relationship affords us insights into a hidden world.

Jung and Freud described the concepts of ‘the shadow self’ or ‘Id’. Many writers are fascinated by the notion of a dark, somewhat out-of-control side to our own personalities. Stories involving twins force us to peer into those dark corners. 

Published in 1846, The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky follows Golyadkin, a low-level bureaucrat living in St Petersburg, as he attends the birthday party of a colleague (he was never invited in the first place). After several social faux pas, he is thrown out of the party. Walking home through a winter storm, he bumps into his double and they develop a friendship of sorts (although it soon dawns on Golyadkin (Snr) that Golyadkin (Jr) is leveraging his charm and skill to overshadow the other man). They become enemies. At the end, Golyadkin Snr notices several other doubles and is dragged away to an asylum. The book explores themes of identity and mental health, but it’s also one of the most fascinating (and sinister) twin stories ever published. 

It’s interesting to see just how valuable real-world controlled twin studies (medical, behavioural, genetic, psychological) are to the scientific community. This is especially true for studies involving identical twins separated at birth.

In contemporary fiction, science and twins are often found together. Writers of the genre explore fingerprint patterns (dermatoglyphics), DNA sequencing, psychiatric testing and various other forensic techniques. In Tess Gerritsen’s 2004 novel Body Double (the fourth in the Jane Rizzoli series) Maura Isles discovers the body of a woman who looks identical to her, and shares her birthday. Genetic testing proves them to be monozygotic twins.

For more examples of fictional twins I refer you to Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter, Sister by Rosamund Lupton, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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