Book Review: In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce

  • Title: In the Garden of Spite
  • Author: Camilla Bruce
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • Publication Day: January 19, 2021
  • Where to buy: Amazon (affiliate link)
  • Genre: Historical Thriller, Serial Killers

From Goodreads:

An audacious novel of feminine rage about one of the most prolific female serial killers in American history–and the men who drove her to it.

They whisper about her in Chicago. Men come to her with their hopes, their dreams–their fortunes. But no one sees them leave. No one sees them at all after they come to call on the Widow of La Porte. The good people of Indiana may have their suspicions, but if those fools knew what she’d given up, what was taken from her, how she’d suffered, surely they’d understand. Belle Gunness learned a long time ago that a woman has to make her own way in this world. That’s all it is. A bloody means to an end. A glorious enterprise meant to raise her from the bleak, colorless drudgery of her childhood to the life she deserves. After all, vermin always survive.

My review:

I knew nothing about Belle Gunness before I saw this book offered on NetGalley, but it sounded interesting, so I requested it. And interesting it is.

Belle Gunness was a serial killer whose murderous spree stretched from 1884 to 1908. Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Storseth, she grew up in Norway, living an impoverished life as the daughter of a tenant farmer. After suffering abuse at the hands of men – her father, a local boy who got her pregnant – she vowed that she would have better, and she would not be subject to men’s torment.

She immigrated to America, following her sister Nellie, where she rechristened herself Bella, or Belle. The story is told from the viewpoints of both Belle and Nellie, and this gives us the chance to see not only Belle’s thought process, but Nellie’s. Nellie swings from convincing herself that everything is fine to being certain that something is very wrong with Belle, that she’ll have to act against her own sister. Honestly, I kind of wanted to smack Nellie for dithering so much and not doing something about Belle, but I can also see where she would have been terrified to actually try to stop the horrors unfolding.

Belle’s difficult formative years apparently impacted her deeply and brought out the worst in her. She is a difficult character to feel any kind of empathy for. She is grasping, greedy, always wanting more than what she has. She marries a good man, but that isn’t enough for her. She wants children and finds a way to acquire them (there really isn’t another word that fits), and she does love them, as best as she is able. But Belle’s desire for the good life, the best life, leads her to do horrible, brutal things.

This book isn’t for the squeamish. Belle’s murder methods aren’t gentle. She used a cleaver to dismember her victims for easier disposal. It’s not unnecessarily graphic just for shock value, but there’s really no nice way to write that.

It just boggled my mind as I read to think that all these men could vanish and have their disappearance go basically unquestioned, at least at first. In most instances, people seemed to take Belle at her word that the men had been there, but had gone on somewhere else. But then, I reminded myself that this was before the age of internet access and quick communication, that no one could log in and check these men’s credit card activity or phone records. But still. For a woman to be able to kill that many people, dispose of them, and then be able to get away with it for as long as she did is mind-blowing.

Ms. Bruce did her research, and the book is well-written. It isn’t an easy read due to the subject matter, but it is a fascinating look at an intriguing historical figure.

Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley for the advance reader copy. All opinions here are mine, and I don’t say nice things about books I don’t actually like.

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