So you need to write. And you love to read. How do you find time for both? Some people don’t read for pleasure at all while engrossed in a writing project (such self-discipline!) Some limit what they read, steering clear of their own genre – a writer of historical romance might read true crime; an epic fantasy writer might go for biography. There are a couple of reasons for that: not wanting someone else’s style or ideas to rub off on one’s own work, and finding a contrasting genre mentally refreshing, like a mini-vacation.

The issue for me, and probably for most of you, is that I love reading a bit too much, have done since I was a small child hiding away with my library books instead of doing my homework. If I pick up a novel, in particular, I’m likely to become engrossed and let time slip away when I should be spending both my time and my mental energy writing my own book. But these days there’s always a deadline. I don’t have the luxury of chucking the ms in a drawer and forgetting about it while I devour the latest bestseller. Right now I’m juggling commitments in relation to five books: still doing interviews about the one released last month, preparing for another new release in November, checking Australian and American copy edits for a third and trying to get on with writing a fourth, whose deadline is too close for comfort. Book Five is a collection of short fiction, for which I’ve only just finished the last story. Time to read? Not nearly as much as I’d like.

But I do crave a good recreational read, can’t do without it. I’ve posted here before about choices for times like this: classics, YA novels, old favourites. This time I went for the old favourites and learned a couple of things about why some endure and some don’t.
On my bookshelf are four novels by Madeleine Brent. Back in the 70s and 80s when these were first published, they were great favourites of mine. I didn’t know then that the author was actually a bloke. Peter O’Donnell, creator of the Modesty Blaise comic strip, used the pseudonym Madeleine Brent to write nine historical romances between 1971 and 1986. The bio in the books is full of blatant falsehoods!

Popular fiction doesn’t always stand the test of time. The Madeleine Brent novels are all more or less based on the same formula: a young woman is separated in childhood from her family and grows up in an exotic location (Tibet, China, Afghanistan.) She later returns to England, where she has to adapt to what is now an alien culture and solve some kind of mystery that eventually involves going back to the country of her childhood. The stories have a gothic flavour and there’s always an enigmatic man in the mix. Going back to them after a long time, I wondered if I would now find the plots too wildly improbable, the romance cliched or the characterisation dated. Many of the female protagonists in women’s fiction of that era (some of Rosamund Pilcher’s central characters come to mind) could only be described as wet – their degree of naivety is unacceptable to today’s reader.

The good news is that Madeleine Brent fares pretty well after 30-40 years! The novels are all written in first person, and the author not only handles a female viewpoint well, but also creates strong, interesting women protagonists. In that, he is somewhat unusual among male writers of popular fiction – but perhaps it’s not so surprising from the creator of Modesty Blaise! The plots are implausible, but the reader is drawn along by very capable storytelling. We like the characters (fish-out-of-water, courageous heroine; damaged, enigmatic hero; staunch old retainer; powerful antagonist) and we keep turning pages until the protagonist achieves her happy ending. The only Brent novel that doesn’t work for me and never did is the excruciatingly off-kilter Golden Urchin, set in colonial Australia. Even the title is ghastly.

One reason these books remain engaging is that each is narrated in first person by its young female protagonist. 1970s writers of genre fiction could be quite sloppy in their use of point of view – head-hopping was common, as was an intrusive authorial voice. Brent’s consistent use of first person means he avoids these pitfalls completely.

The far-fetched plot lines of Madeleine Brent’s novels are balanced, in most of the books, by sound historical research, an appealing voice and strong characterisation. In fact, the stories are no more ridiculous than some of the scenarios in contemporary popular fiction. This writer knew how to tell a darn good story and keep us engaged throughout. The books are not only entertaining for readers who love historical romance, they remain excellent examples for writers of commercial fiction.

Do you have old favourites in popular fiction? Have they influenced your writing? What qualities keep them fresh and appealing?

About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written eighteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet has two new novels out in 2014: The Caller, third and final book in the Shadowfell series, and Dreamer's Pool, the first novel in a new adult fantasy/mystery series, Blackthorn & Grim.