Murder is My Hobby

Posted on July 23, 2020

by Allison Montclair

I write books in which people are murdered, then others use their assorted talents to find the killers. We who participate in this genre are constantly on the lookout for the latest developments in forensic science, not to mention the latest developments in every other field so that we can adapt them towards this laudable end of dispatching fictional humans in new and interesting ways. Given the opportunity at parties, I can cheerfully rattle away on the deconvolution of mixed DNA samples, tool marks on casings, and so forth.

I am not often invited back to these parties.

The creation of these tales becomes simpler on the forensic front when one turns the clock back. Writing in a given time and place, however, means that the author has to be aware of how violence is practiced in that setting. Our heroines and heroes in the course of their quests for justice, revenge, or redemption may resort to physical combat to achieve those goals. Writers of these scenes must be knowledgeable about the availability of those skills and the weapons used, which leads to the larger and extremely useful questions of what part combat and the training for it played in the world we depict.

Nit-picker that I am, I remember wondering when I first studied Hamlet, “Did they have rapiers then?” It turns out that in Denmark during that period, they did not. The rapier was first created around 1500, and had become quite the faddish weapon by Shakespeare’s time. It must have looked cool, so we’ll give it to him, but we nit-pickers are less forgiving with modern writers.

Luckily, there are scholars who devote their lives to these topics. Years ago, I sat enraptured as Bob Charron, who had translated, annotated, and mastered the manuals of Fiore dei Liberi, the Fourteenth Century fencing master, gave a lecture-demonstration. Charron was a tall, powerfully-built man who could have taken on the entire Society for Creative Anachronism single-handedly. He showed how Fiore began with wrestling holds and throws, then began to add different weapons: club, dagger, short sword, long sword.

We all felt tremendously sorry for the poor man who had to keep attacking him.

Defendu by William E. Fairbairn, first published in 1926.

One useful thing I learned from Mr. Charron was the philosophy of Fiore’s approach. It wasn’t chivalrous. It observed no formal rules of combat. It assumed that you were being surprised in a tavern by an unknown number of attackers, and you had to kill or disable them as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

One may express character through fighting. A person who is large and strong will know that he or she is large and strong. A character who is not will have to be smarter, faster, and sneakier, or be trained in some martial art that allows them to even the score.

When I began writing the Sparks and Bainbridge mysteries, set in 1946 London, I knew that Iris Sparks would have a background with British Intelligence, which would include training in hand-to-hand combat. I needed to learn what that training would have been like. This led me to Major William E. Fairbairn.

Hands Off! by William E. Fairbairn, first published as Self-Defense for Women and Girls in 1942.

Fairbairn at a young age joined the Shanghai Municipal Police. A veteran of hundreds of street fights, he incorporated various disciplines into a system he called defendu. He was recruited by the British Secret Service at the onset of WWII to train commandos.

He popularized his methods in Get Tough!, which proclaimed, “You don’t need Brute Strength. With your bare hands, you can beat the man who wants to kill you.” He followed this in 1942 with Self-Defense for Women and Girls, reissued with the much catchier title, Hands Off!

His techniques for women show little deference to the “weaker” sex. Fairbairn clearly saw a woman’s ability to stave off attack as crucial to those perilous times. In an Austen-like introduction that I intend to borrow for an epigraph, he writes, “It goes without saying that a woman should always know how to protect herself.” He adds, “Whether you carry on at home or in business, or whether you free a man for the front by taking his place on the assembly line or on the farm, the confidence you will gain … from knowing that you are the master of an unpleasant situation with which you may have to deal will immeasurably increase your efficiency and value to the war effort.”

The techniques are accompanied by photographs of a young woman countering repeated attacks by Fairbairn himself, including a brutal over-reaction to an unwanted hand placed on one’s knee in a theatre. A sturdy umbrella is a recommended accessory. Sparks knows defendu. In the third book, Mrs. Bainbridge will begin her lessons. Stay tuned!

Want to read more from Allison Montclair? Check out her original introduction from the first book in the Sparks and Bainbridge series, The Right Sort of Man!


Allison Montclair grew up devouring hand-me-down Agatha Christie paperbacks and James Bond movies. As a result of this deplorable upbringing, Montclair became addicted to tales of crime, intrigue, and espionage. She now spends her spare time poking through the corners, nooks, and crannies of history, searching for the odd mysterious bits and transforming them into novels of her own.

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