Early in life Bella Sorensen discovers the world is made only for men. They own everything: jobs, property, wives. But Bella understands what few others do: where women are concerned, men are weak. A woman unhampered by scruples can take from them what she wants. 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. Starting with her long suffering husband, Mads, Bella 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 to enrich herself and cut down the male population come to a glorious, dreadful fruition . . .
Having thoroughly enjoyed Camilla Bruce’s previous book, the dark and disturbing You Let Me In, I was excitedly anticipating Triflers Need Not Apply, based on the real life case of female serial killer Belle Gunness, and what an absolute treat it is…
Set in around both Norway and Chicago from 1877 to the start of the twentieth century, Bruce has brilliantly melded together the true crime story of killer Belle Gunness, with her fictional creation Bella Sorensen, tracing the dramatic growth of one woman scarred mentally and physically from a violent episode in her youth in Norway, to a cool headed, avaricious killer now inhabiting Chicago. From the very outset of the book, Bruce raises some interesting points on the age old argument of nature vs nurture, gradually incorporating small snap shots of Bella’s previous life in Scandinavia, prior to a vicious assault, that makes the reader question her motivations for her killing spree later in life. With an unsettled upbringing in a violent household, is the violence within her a product of this, or do the flashes of her propensity for sadistic behaviour run deeper with her psyche, when compared with the lives of her fellow siblings, most noticeably her older sister, Nellie who is the catalyst for her move to Chicago?
Consequently, Bruce presents Bella as a highly mercurial and complicated character, manipulating our empathy at every turn, as her killing spree gathers pace, and her reasoning for killing becomes a little less clear cut. Does she kill out of compulsion, misandry or for financial gain? Does she kill to avenge the sins of the past, “It was better that I felt strong, I thought, able to take down the biggest of men, than feeling like the ruined girl bleeding on the ground.” Or does she kill, simply because she enjoys the act itself? She says pointedly on the cusp of one killing, “I wanted him dead; but then I wanted him alive, just so I could see him ache,” leading her to ask another later in the book, “you think I like the act of murder?” but are these other factors, money and so on, her real motivation? Bruce leads the reader to form their own conclusions, and I guarantee these will change as the book progresses…
There’s always a danger when a story is constructed around factual events that the writer can let slip of the narrative and lean too heavily one way or the other. However, what I most admired about this book is the way that Bruce maintains a tight grip on both fact and fiction, to not only produce a novel that positively resonates with the atmosphere and events of the period in some cases in almost forensic detail, but never loses sight of the need to keep this as a flowing and entertaining narrative, despite the darkness that lies at his heart. I loved the descriptions of the run down Chicago neighbourhoods that Bella initially moves to, alike, but different, to the grinding poverty of rural Norway from where she escaped. Bruce captures the spirit of the age with allusions to events, social and political detail, and the world she sets before her is vibrant and alive with energy. Her powers of description are top notch, to fully immerse the reader in these contrasting environments, and the changing environments Bella moves through.
The characterisation is superb throughout, and as I encountered each character they were so vivid and real in my mind, from both their physical descriptions, to their individual behaviour and their strengths and weaknesses as they encircle or become more intimately involved with Bella. From the growing mistrust of her sister Nellie, to her obsessive relationship with the shadowy James Lee, and the trail of unsuspecting men who fall for her womanly charms, each character is defined by how Bella impinges on and ingratiates herself into their lives, so she is seen not only just as herself, but through the prism of how others see her too, which leads to conflicting perceptions of her to the reader.
There is absolutely no question that Triflers Need Not Apply is an absolute dead cert for one of my books of the year as I found it utterly mesmerising, with its compelling blend of fiction and fact. Bruce’s use of vivid description, incisive characterisation, and her ability to totally subsume the reader in each environment, carefully interweaving the actual events of Bella’s life, and the zeitgeist of the age is mesmeric throughout. By playing a clever guessing game with the reader as to Bella’s true motivations, the book totally heightens the reading experience, and when you take a step back and think this woman actually existed, the chill down your spine just gets that little bit more chilling indeed. Highly recommended.
CAMILLA BRUCE was born in central Norway and grew up in an old forest, next to an Iron Age burial mound. She has a master’s degree in comparative literature from The Norwegian University of Science and Technology and a varied work history in communications and project management. Camilla currently lives in Trondheim with her son and cat. Triflers Need Not Apply is her first foray into historical fiction.
Triflers Need Not Apply will be published by Michael Joseph Books 05.08.21.
With thanks to Michael Joseph Books for the ARC.