Triflers Need Not Apply by Camilla Bruce

‘I believe that luck can be made.’

Three years ago, I read   ‘Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men’ by Harold Schechter: the first time I had heard of the serial killer Belle Gunness. I picked up this novel, intrigued to read how Camilla Bruce would present the actions, life, and times of Belle Gunness.

What do we know about Belle Gunness? She was born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset on 11 November 1859. She killed at least fourteen people (and possibly as many as forty) before disappearing. It is possible that she died in a fire in 1908, but she may have faked her death.

In this novel, Ms Bruce imagines a woman who, hurt as a teenager, learns how to take what she wants whatever the cost. After moving to the USA to be with her older sister Nellie and changing her name from Brynhild to Belle, Belle marries in 1884. Her husband, Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson, dies in 1900. With the insurance, Belle buys a farm. Belle marries Peter Gunness in 1902, and the killing continues until 1908.

While I did not enjoy this novel, I admire the way in which Ms Bruce tried to create a story about a truly evil person. Basically, if you got in Belle’s way, she’d kill you. Poison was one method, violence another. Insurance policies came in handy. People were disposable, a means to an end. Shudder.

‘Belle Gunness remains mercurial. This, then, is not a novel about the truth. It’s an attempt to understand how someone like Belle could have happened.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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