The Bubble Gum Thief—Jeff Miller


(Warning: There be some spoilers below!)

One day, I made a date with myself to explore the Berkeley Public Library, having gotten a library card a few weeks earlier. So I took my lunch break and walked myself across the block to the library.

None of the books I went for were there, even though the website suggested that they would be. But that was just fine by me. I'm so instantly distracted by books, I easily found some other selections, books I never would have known to go looking for.

This was one of them.

At once a terrifying and intriguing premise, this book was so well and thoughtfully crafted. I found it difficult to put the book down when I got off the train in the morning and entered the office. (Let alone for the walk the two blocks to the office - I barely lifted my eyes to peruse the traffic conditions.) You know it's good writing - and a good book - when you want to read other books in the author's canon. It led me to investigate what other books the author had written, and this is his first novel! What! Don't tease. I hope that he's working on other things. (It seems like he may have something coming down the pipeline eventually, since the cover of this book proclaims it "A Dagny Gray Thriller." That insinuates that there will be more than one, in my experience.)

Essentially, the story is of a criminal whose crimes are escalating. It starts with a pack of gum, and quickly gets more violent and disturbing. He seems to be playing a game with Dagny Gray, an FBI agent who is investigating the crimes.

As she is investigating, Dagny Gray has her own personal struggles, particularly her struggle with anorexia. When Miller first introduced her calorie counting, I was inclined to be offended. Another stereotypical woman who counts her calories, and so precisely and obsessively too? Gag me. But it quickly becomes clear that Dagny's obsessive counting is related to her essentially lifelong struggle with anorexia.

There were quite a few twists and turns throughout the book. It was an interesting juxtaposition to be presented with these descriptive, lively characters, and then to have such clinical descriptions of the deaths - very matter of fact and non-emotional.

An especially poignant moment, in light of the Sandy Hook shootings in December, was one of the crimes taking place at an elementary school. At first, the shooting in the book seemed just as pointless and impossible to understand as those at Sandy Hook. But later we see that the villain in the book did have a reason. It's not a justifiable one, but it's more reason than we will probably ever have for the tragic shooting in December.

One of my favourite parts of the book was the Professor, an old FBI agent who initially pulls Dagny onto the case. She is taking his class at Quantico when he offers her the opportunity to do some work for him. At first, these Bubble Gum Thief cases seem like nothing. Anyway, the Professor is right away one of the most eccentric and lovable curmudgeons that I've encountered in a book - if you love curmudgeons, as I do.

I also thought this was some of the best male-author-heroine-voice writing that I've read. More on point and realistic than some female authors writing for female characters, in my opinion.

Miller presented an intriguing idea - that of crowdscourcing crime solving. I have a friend who works for a crowdsourcing company, so I was particularly drawn to this idea. In the book, Dagny's partner Victor utilizes criminology students, law enforcement agencies, and Wiki editors in order to help track down some further information about their suspect. Because of the nature of the work, and the need to be on the ground in those particular cities, it was much easier - not to mention more time- and cost-effective - to use the civilians who were already in the area and ready and willing to help.

I thought the story-arc of the villain was so artfully presented. From the beginning, he seemed like such a thoroughly irredeemable character: he seems to have no emotions or hesitations when murdering these people, even the children that he's resolved to kill, and is completely un-remorseful. But towards the end, we are introduced to the man before he became the monster, and we see a part of his slow descent into "madness" and hatred. We even learn the "why" of the crimes. And although, of course, the why does not mitigate the crimes, although it still seems a rather drastic course of action, we come to understand how this man was pushed over the edge.

I loved the ending. About thirty pages from the end, something happened that was completely unexpected to me, and it seemed like a rather abrupt ending. I momentarily forgot all of the things that can happen in thirty pages. But then Miller went back and tied it all up for me with a nice bow, exactly how I like it. He even made sure to pull back small pieces that had seemed inconsequential earlier in the book.

One of the best, most engrossing books that I have read in a long time. Looking forward impatiently to further Dagny Gray thrillers.

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