Bruce’s In the Garden of Spite (Berkley, Jan.) recreates the life of Victorian-era serial killer Belle Guiness.
What about Belle’s story interested you?
Belle grew up in the same part of Norway as I did, and concocted her schemes between housekeeping and child-rearing, to better her financial situation. I think all of this made her uncomfortably relatable to me in a way that the stereotypical male serial killer is not. I really wanted to try to understand how someone I had things in common with could turn into such a monster.
What surprised you about her?
The story is peculiar and twisted enough to be almost unbelievable. What surprised me the most was to discover her soft spot for children, which seems to have been genuine. She would throw the local kids Christmas parties and visit the sick ones with gifts. Her own children even had their own pony and a cart. I found it hard to reconcile that warmth and generosity with the image of the bloodthirsty widow, but it definitely makes for a more complex and interesting character.
How does Belle compare with other female serial killers?
Belle differs in a number of ways. For one, there’s the level of violence: while the stereotypical Victorian murderess slips arsenic into a teacup, Belle dismembered her victims. Most women also used murder mainly as a means to solve marital issues or disputes within the family, while Belle targeted strangers as well. I think it’s fair to say that she had loftier goals and more intricate schemes than most.
Is there something about her story that’s unique to her time?
Belle was an immigrant, and arrived in the U.S. at a time where the country was flooded with people in the same situation. Many were unsettled and moved around a lot, chasing a brighter future, so it wasn’t uncommon for people to disappear for a while, or for people to lose track of a relative, and I don’t think Belle could have done what she did—for so long—if that hadn’t been the case. She was very aware of the female ideal at the time, and used her own perceived fragility to her advantage. In one of her letters to a suitor, she goes on about how dearly she needs a man so she herself can stay indoors and spend time with her children, as a woman ought to, and how not even the hardships she has faced has ruined her God-given womanliness. She went on to kill him, of course.