Despite what’s portrayed in many action films, martial arts involve a lot more than just smacking and kicking someone. In fact, the whole point of skill at martial arts is careful self-control (rather than simply lunging at someone) and mind/body connection. Because of that, traditional martial arts are holistic; they involve meditation, breath control, and coordinated movements, among other things.
Most traditional martial arts take years to learn properly, and even longer to perfect, and people have been doing just that for many centuries. So, it’s little wonder that we see martial arts and those who know them in crime fiction. When it’s done well (i.e. credibly), some skill at martial arts can add a layer to a character.
Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that he’s got an eclectic set of skills and knowledge. One of them is bartitsu (Conan Doyle called it ‘baritsu’), which is a mix of martial arts styles, including jiu jitsu and other techniques. Interestingly, bartitsu was developed in the UK at the end of the 19th Century and gained in popularity during the Edwardian Era. As Holmes fans know, he uses bartitsu to defend himself during the climactic fight with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls. That, so he tells Watson in The Adventure of the Empty House, is how he managed to stay alive.
Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss is a member of the Violent Crimes Division of the Göteborg police. She is also a former Swedish national judo champion. While she no longer competes, she is a regular at the local dojo. She knows that keeping mind and body healthy and connected is important, and she uses her judo sessions to keep in shape and to cope with the stress of being a police detective with a busy family life. She passes along her interest in martial arts to her daughter, Katarina, who studies for several years herself. Later, Katarina becomes more interested in dance than in judo but her years of study have taught her valuable skills.
Qiu Xiaolong’s Chief Inspector Chen Cao is a detective for the Shanghai police. As a young person, he studied tai chi, as many people do, and tried his best to learn. But tai chi didn’t come easily to him (as I say, martial arts is complex). As we learn in A Loyal Character Dancer, he didn’t continue his martial arts study, but he did happen to find an old English textbook in the park where he was practicing one day and found both an interest and an ability with language. Chen hasn’t continued studying tai chi, but he respects those who have mastered it. Here’s a bit of his thinking (also from A Loyal Character Dancer) as he sees a man doing tai chi in a park one day:
‘Chief Inspector Chen wondered what he might have become had he persisted in practicing. Perhaps he would now be like that tai chi devotee, wearing a white silk martial arts costume, loose-sleeved, red-silk buttoned, with a peaceful expression on his face. Chen knew him. An accountant in an almost-bankrupt state company, yet at that moment, a master moving in perfect harmony with the qi of the universe.’
That harmony and self-control is an important aspect of traditional martial arts.
Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is following ‘money trails’ to locate funds that people have tried to hide. She works for a Hong Kong-based company that serves people who’ve been cheated out of money and are desperate to get it back. For those clients, the financial loss is devastating on several levels; and for various reasons, they may not be able to (or wish to) go through the usual channels. So, by word of mouth, they learn of and contact Lee’s employer. The people who have stolen that money generally don’t want to be caught, so they can be very dangerous. Lee’s prepared, though. She is an expert at bak mei, a special form of martial arts that makes particular use of the hands. More than once in the series, she makes use of her skill at bak mei and other martial arts.
And then there’s Zoë Sharp’s novels featuring Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Fox. She’s a former member of Her Majesty’s Special Forces, where she learned martial arts. She left the military, but she still makes use of her knowledge. For one thing, she teaches what she knows to others, especially women. The idea is to help them develop not just the ability to defend themselves, but also the confidence that goes with it. Here’s what she has to say about it:
‘I view self-defence like wearing an expensive watch. You don’t keep flashing it about trying to impress people. Instead, you keep it up your sleeve, but in the back of your mind you have the confidence of knowing you have the exact time whenever you need it.’
And Fox has certainly had need of her skills. She’s a PI who sometimes gets into very dangerous situations. Like most of those who are skilled at martial arts, especially traditional martial arts, she begins by trying to defuse the situation. The goal is not to have to use her skills if it can be avoided. But she knows what to do if it can’t.
And that’s the thing about traditional martial arts, especially if they are taught, learned, and used effectively. The whole point is not to have to use them in the first place. But there are times when they come in very handy…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Handsome Devil’s Samurai.