Beebo Brinker and Lisbeth Salander
I’ve been reading several novels in Ann Bannon’s excellent ‘Beebo Brinker Chronicles’ series, and I was struck by how much the stories reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s ‘Girl Who’ novels. On the surface the two series appear to be very different; Ann Bannon is the pseudonym of Ann Weldy who wrote five novels, Odd Girl Out (1957), I Am A Woman (1959), Women in the Shadows (1959), Journey to a Woman (1960) and Beebo Brinker (1962), which are now considered groundbreaking works of lesbian pulp fiction and form the Beebo Brinker Chronicles. Bannon’s only other novel, The Marriage (1960) is generally not considered part of the series, although it does feature several series characters. The series centres around the characters Beebo, Laura, Beth and Jack as they come to terms with their sexuality in late 1950s and early 1960s America. Beebo is sometimes considered the archetype of the stereotypical butch lesbian, but this is a somewhat unfair assessment as Bannon is highly skilled at subtle and plausible characterisations. Beebo does not even appear in the first novel, Odd Girl Out, which is set in a fictional midwestern university where Laura and Beth first meet and begin a friendship which develops into a romance. Unlike others novels belonging to the lesbian pulp fiction genre, such as Theodora Keogh’s The Other Girl (1962), the Beebo Brinker series contains little in the way of actual crimes. Instead, Bannon explores the emotional violence that entails from relationships complicated by feelings of misogyny and sexual jealously. Indeed, the sexuality of the characters is the crime to their society. Occasionally in the novels, the turbulent emotions of the characters does manifest itself in physical and sexual violence, such as rape. But for the most part, the Beebo Brinker chronicles have a literary feel which some critics would argue transcends crime fiction.
So how does this connect to Stieg Larsson’s Girl Who novels? After all, Larsson’s series fully embraces all manner of crime fiction elements such as locked room mysteries, private detectives, corporate intrigue, espionage, international conspiracies and serial killers to name just a few. Well, in the character of Lisbeth Salander, Larsson created a protagonist who was socially ostracised in a manner not unlike Beebo Brinker and Bannon’s other characters. Lesbianism no longer carries the stigma it once did in 1950s America and elsewhere, but Salander’s bisexuality is by no means universally accepted nor is her Goth identity. Indeed, sinister bureaucratic figures often consider Salander criminal or mentally deficient partly because of her tattoos and body piercings. Another connection between the two series is that they destroy the facade of idealised societies by taking the perspective of characters who are not accepted by that society. The Beebo Brinker Chronicles are set in an America that had become the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world following the Allied victory in the Second World War. But her characters do not find happiness in these economic boom times, as they are either marginalised or have to live with deceit to protect their sexuality. By the time the last novel in the series was published in 1962, America was on the cusp of massive social change and painful upheaval with race riots and anti-Vietnam war protests in what would be a fractious period for the nation. Larsson, and fellow Swedish crime writers who came before him such as Henning Mankell, have thrillingly dramatised Sweden’s social and political ills. This has been culturally significant, as many readers in the UK and elsewhere had somewhat naively regarded Sweden as an ideal European state, almost entirely devoid of poverty, crime and political corruption. This is not to say that either Sweden or the United States are wholly dysfunctional societies masquerading as utopias, far from it. But it is noteworthy that both the Beebo Brinker Chronicles and the Girl Who novels created a certain revisionism as to how we have come to view these societies.