Mindy McGinnis

A Madness So Discreet

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A Madness So Discreet Summary

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Set in 1890 Boston and Ohio, young-adult mystery thriller A Madness So Discreet (2015) by American author Mindy McGinnis follows Grace Mae, a young woman from a prestigious family who is compelled to enter an insane asylum to conceal her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Using her sharp intellect to escape the asylum, Grace relocates to Ohio and begins a new life of solving crimes, accessing her madness to investigate crime scenes and gain insight to the motivations of a mysterious serial killer. A Madness So Discreet won the 2015 Edgar Award for Best Young Mystery. The novel has been praised for its “bountiful buffet of twisted, dark intrigue” by USA Today, its “dark study of the effects of power in the wrong hands, buoyed by a tenacious heroine and her colorful companions” by Kirkus Reviews, and comes “highly recommended” by School Library Journal.

Narrated in the first person perspective by young female protagonist Grace Mae, the story begins in 1890 Boston, Massachusetts. Grace comes from a prominent Boston family, and because of her illegitimate pregnancy, is sent to live in the Wayburne Lunatic Asylum in Boston until she gives birth. When she arrives at the Asylum, Grace refrains from speaking. Deemed one of the gentler inmates, Grace changes this perception when she stabs a doctor who had been inappropriately touching her. Grace is punished by being wrapped in piping hot sheets, which causes a miscarriage. Afterward, Grace is sent to the basement with the most dangerous inmates.

While in the basement, Grace meets Dr. Thornhollow, a brilliant and ambitious young surgeon who specializes in performing lobotomies. Grace implores Dr. Thornhollow to give her a lobotomy so she can forget about being raped and impregnated by her own father. Thornhollow denies the request, but agrees to fake a lobotomy, causing the asylum to falsely declare Grace’s death and quell the wrath of her vengeful father, Nathanial Mae, a powerful Senator in Boston.

Sensing her sharp intellect and rare cleverness, Thornhollow brings Grace to a progressive new asylum in a small town in Ohio. While at the new asylum, Grace continues to feign muteness. However, the act is a mere ruse, allowing Grace to use her mental acuity to help Thornhollow profile criminal offenders and apprehend murderers.

During her stay at the new asylum, Grace befriends Nelly, an Irish-born prostitute, suffering from late-stage syphilis. Grace also befriends Lizzie, an insane girl who seems normal but speaks to an imaginary friend named String that sits on her shoulder, reading people’s minds and predicting the future. As Grace becomes more comfortable in the asylum, she finds herself enjoying her work with Thornhollow profiling criminals.

Soon, Grace and Thornhollow discover that a serial killer is on the loose in the area, one whose modus operandi seems to be raping and murdering young women. Thornhollow immediately suspects the killer is a doctor who has difficulty with women because of his erectile dysfunction. Grace and Thornhollow begin to track down a doctor who fits the suspected profile, they but have little success. Their case becomes cold after the murders cease and a lack of evidence is presented. Grace becomes distracted from the case when Nelly suddenly commits suicide in the asylum.

Grace renews her focus on the case when she learns that Thornhollow is the only son of a family demanding he conceive children in order to bear heirs. Grace thinks the murder suspect may face similar pressures. Later, Grace sneaks into town to purchase perfume for Lizzie. While she is at the perfumery, by complete chance, Grace happens upon Dr. Beaton, a chemist who perfectly matches the profile of the serial killer in question. Grace informs Thornhollow that Dr. Beaton is a key suspect, but Thornhollow warns Grace that the police will not believe them. Grace cannot accept Dr. Beaton killing another woman, so she returns to collect her perfume, giving Dr. Beaton the perfect opportunity to kill her. However, Grace murders Dr. Beaton instead. Thornhollow arrives at the scene and instantly suspects Grace to be the murderer but does not inform the authorities of her suspected involvement.

Grace learns through letters from her younger sister, Alice, that their father is grooming Alice for marriage. As a result, Grace pleads with Thornhollow to help her concoct a scheme to frame her father for Beaton’s murders, thereby saving Alice from her father’s abusive behavior. Grace also acts Lizzie to help in this scheme. Lizzie serves as one of many women who publicly accuse Grace’s powerful father, Senator Mae, of rape. Lizzie claims Senator Mae raped her in the Ohio asylum while also threatening to kill her. Senator Mae is forced to stand trial as a result. Thornhollow testifies at the hearing as an expert witness in phrenology. After deliberating, Thornhollow suddenly declares that Senator Mae is clinically insane and ought to be sent to an asylum rather than to prison to face the death penalty. Grace pays her father a final visit before he is sentenced. He threatens her life, but she assures him that nobody will believe that she is still alive now that he has been declared criminally insane. At the end of the novel, Grace returns to the asylum and discovers Alice under the care of her aunt. Grace and Thornhollow continue their detective work on murder cases.

In addition to A Madness So Discreet, McGinnis has written two previous books, including her debut novel Not a Drop to Drink, and its companion novel In a Handful of Dust. Her most recent novel, The Female of the Species, was published in 2016.