I stand at the doorway, staring at the delivery boy. He looks back at me with perfect seriousness. An hour ago, I called the pizza place and asked for a large pepperoni and black olive pie. I’m expecting gooey, melted cheese, spicy pepperoni, a golden brown crust.
He’s holding a dead fish in his hands. And I’ve already paid for it over the phone, so I really can’t do anything but take the fish and figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do now.
I received A Madness So Discreet in my October OwlCrate box, the first time I tried out the bookish subscription service. I’ll admit, I’m always leery of books that come in subscription boxes — I canceled my BookRiot Quarterly box months ago because I never liked the books that came with it (and because it was way overpriced for the paltry few items you’d get.) But, when I checked out this book’s description, I was tentatively excited — a woman trapped in a mental institution is let out to help a brilliant doctor solve crimes? There are so many ways for this to go right.
Turns out, there were also many ways for this to go wrong. This book baited and switched me, I think. I picked up what I thought was pizza and bit into cold fish.
~*~ WARNING: SPOILERS WITHIN ~*~
Complaint #1: The Book Doesn’t Deliver What It Promised
The story starts off very cerebral, creepy, and dark — Grace is a young pregnant woman living in an insane asylum at some point in the past; the abuse she has gone through in this horrible place as rendered her mute. She is trapped in her head as much as she is trapped in her cell. Because she is so quiet, she’s one of a few inmates selected to attend a dinner held by the head of the asylum, where she’s asked to be one of the calm, level-headed inmates paraded in front of this ~Board~ coming to inspect the hospital.
She’s also creepily touched by the head doctor during this dinner, and when his hands linger a bit too long, Grace, for so long unable to speak, lets out a scream of rage and stabs the doctor’s hand straight through with a fork.
I loved the beginning of this book. Everything about the abuse in the insane asylum, Grace being trapped there not because there was anything wrong with her mind, but because she was an unwed pregnant woman her family wanted hidden away for a while — it all set up a really interesting concept, and I was excited to where the story would go next.
But then … the story changed. Drastically. Like, it practically changed genres. After her outburst and a horrible punishment that causes her to lose her baby, Grace is sent down to live in the cellar, where inmates the hospital wants hidden away are kept. She befriends a fellow inmate who is so clearly a rip-off of Hannibal Lecter it’s almost embarrassing, and it’s there she catches the interest of Thornhollow, a doctor brought in to lobotomize the most violent patients before this unnamed, unseen, ultimately unimportant Board can see them. Thornhollow agrees to help Grace escape the asylum, provided she use her ~powers of observation~ to help him solve murders.
So, suddenly it goes from a creepy asylum setting to Ohio, where Grace is pretending to be a mute patient at Thornhollow’s much safer, better run asylum, while really accompanying him to crime scenes and solving murders. Eventually, a serial killer pops up in this very city, and they have to figure out who it is before he kills again.
What happened to my cool, cerebral story about a woman trapped in her own mind, in a mental institution, in the expectations of a sexist society? Oh, yeah, that story’s gone. We’re a crime drama now.
But wait, there’s more! It’s revealed throughout the story SPOILER that Grace’s father is the one who impregnated her and hid her away, and she’s worried his sexual abuse is going to eventually transfer over to her little sister. The last third of the book becomes a whole court drama as Grace tries to falsely accuse her father of the crimes the serial killer committed, so that he can be hung and killed.
I can’t even remember what happened with that storyline, because at this point, I had mentally checked out.
Dear Authors out there: if you promise one thing in the first act of your novel, that’s what you need to deliver on! You give your readers whiplash if you repeatedly change your story’s focus!
Complaint #2: The Characters Weren’t Anything Special
I liked Grace in the beginning. (I especially appreciated her stabbing a guy in the hand for touching her without her consent.) But as the story went on, her personality faded. I mean, SPOILER if a main character can brutally murder someone and you, as the reader, just blink and turn the page, I think there’s been an emotional disconnect.
As for the other characters, they’re so bland to hardly warrant a mention. Thornhollow is particularly hard to pin down, because he’s set up to be something of a friend to Grace, but he’s so unpleasant it’s difficult not just to like him, but to tolerate him when he speaks. It seemed like the author was going for a Sherlock Holmes character with this guy, and it just didn’t work for me. (In the same way it seemed the cellar-guy that Grace befriends, Falseed, was so obviously a rip of Hannibal. I appreciate homages, but after a while it just felt unoriginal.)
Complaint #3: The Writing Had No Particular Saving Grace
Sometimes, a plot is weak, but the writing is good. Or, the characters in a book are flat, but they’re funny, so you can forgive their paltry two dimensions. At the very least, I was hoping this book would be legitimately creepy or suspenseful in order to keep me turning pages — but once we left the insane asylum, the story didn’t even have that going for it.
This was such a weird phenomena for me. The book started off so strongly, and just as it was hitting its stride, it settled into something so … mediocre and bland.
I mean, I wouldn’t say you shouldn’t read this book. I managed to finish it in just a few days, so something compelled me to keep reading (even if that something was desperate insistence that the story had to get better.) If you’re a fan of Hannibal or Sherlock, you’ll see echoes of the characters you love. And I really do think the first few chapters were impressive, very creepy, strange, and beautifully written. It’s just a shame the rest of the book deviated so starkly from that style.
I gave this a 3 out of 5 stars (though honestly, that was being nice…)
Phew, I am done being mean. Have you read this book? What did you think? It started off so good, didn’t it?! And I really liked Falseed, even though he was so cookie-cutter. Have you ever read a book that changed genres/styles on you, and didn’t live up to what you thought it was promising? (And handed you trout when you wanted pizza??) IT SUCKS, DOESN’T IT?!