Book Review

Triflers Need Not Apply by Camilla Bruce

Bella Sorensen knows the world is made for men.

But she also knows that where women are concerned, men are weak.

And so Bella sets out to prove to the world that a woman can be just as ruthless, black-hearted and single-minded as any man.

She embarks on a killing spree – the like of which has never been seen before nor since.

And through it all her kind, older sister Nellie can only watch in horror as Bella’s schemes come to a glorious, dreadful fruition…

Based on the true story of Belle Gunness whose killing spree began in Chicago in 1900, Triflers Need Not Apply is a novelistic tour de force exploring one woman’s determination to pay men back for all they have taken.

I needed something a little different to read recently, and Triflers Need Not Apply fit the bill perfectly. It’s a fictionalised account of Belle Gunness who, in the early twentieth century, killed multiple men in America – initially her two husbands and later men that she lured to her farm with promises to combine her, by that time, considerable wealth with theirs through marriage. 

The novel is mostly told from Belle’s point of view, although she goes by various names throughout the novel.  She is Brynhild in her native Norway where we meet her as a young woman who believes that the man who got her pregnant will do right by her.  She is quickly proved mistaken, and events take a tragic turn – both for Brynhild’s unborn child and the man in question.  Seeing only a lifetime of servitude ahead of her, she reaches out to her sister, Nellie, in Chicago, asking for money so that she can emigrate to America.  Upon her arrival, she adopts the name Bella before becoming Belle later on.  Right from the beginning, the reader is thrown into Belle’s decidedly murky world, understanding that she is someone who will have her revenge, even if she has to wait for it.

Camilla Bruce’s motivation for writing this novel is to explore what drove Belle to act as she did, beyond her seemingly insatiable greed.  There’s an exploration of nature vs. nurture, and particularly how her formative years may have impacted her psyche.  Her childhood was one of poverty, and her father was both quick to anger and quick with his fists.  This insight does, I think, give a plausible reason for why she would want to improve her own situation and achieve independence.  Her means of doing so are most definitely more foul than fair, but Belle quickly proves to be a fascinating character, and this is a wonderfully entertaining read despite being told mostly from the perspective of someone with multiple murders under their belt.  There is of course some artistic licence taken by Bruce (as highlighted through the author’s note) and yet it clearly draws on much of the known history of this individual as well and Bruce delivers a convincing and complex individual whose rationale is explored throughout the novel.

There are also a few chapters told from the perspective of Nellie – Belle’s older sister who helps her emigrate and supports her initial arrival in Chicago.  Nellie gives a much more sympathetic viewpoint throughout the narrative, providing a neat counterpoint to Belle’s often chilling and uncompromising perspective.  That said, I feel that Nellie is complicit to a degree – she at first suspects and later confirms what Belle is up to, yet remains loyal to her sister throughout.  It’s understandable, but I do wonder if her sister knew or suspected in real life – you’d have to think that you’d be at least a little suspicious after a time.

Triflers Need Not Apply is a wonderfully dark novel that explores the potential motives for Belle Gunness’ actions.  It puts you in the mind of a villain – one who I didn’t actually want to get caught! – and provides a fascinating fictional narrative around this infamous figure.  Whether you’re familiar with Belle Gunness’ story or completely new to it, this is a cracking read. 

Triflers Need Not Apply is published by Michael Joseph and is available now in hardback, eBook, and audio formats.

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