Slaney figures the authorities will count on him to head west, as he eventually will. But for a start, in an arrangement put together by a friendly fellow con for a price, he is waiting for a transport truck carrying Lays potato chips that will first take him east some miles to Guysborough. He intends to hide out there for a few days in a room above a bar owned by the con’s grandmother, before beginning his westward journey.
He’d broken out of prison and he was going back to Colombia. He’d learned from the first trip down there, the trip that had landed him in jail, that the most serious mistakes are the easiest to make. There are mistakes that stand in the centre of an empty field and cry out for love.
The largest mistake, that time, was that Slaney and Hearn had underestimated the Newfoundland fishermen of Capelin Cove. The fishermen had known about the caves the boys had dug for stashing weed. They’d seen the guys with their long hair and shovels and picks drive in from town and set up tents in an empty field. They’d watched them down at the beach all day, heard them at night with their guitars around the bonfire. The fishermen had called the cops.
Lisa Moore has a deserved reputation as a Newfoundland-based literary novelist — her most recent, February, won this year’s Canada Reads competition and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Two previous works, Alligator and the story collection Open, made the Giller longlist. The opening to Caught suggests that she is moving from “literary” to “crime” in this work.
That impression changes early on, however, when the reader is introduced to Patterson, a middle-aged staff sergeant in the Toronto Drug Section, as he arrives in Nova Scotia. He has finally been promised a promotion, but it is contingent on him arresting the Hearn mentioned in the excerpt above. Knowing that Slaney will hook up with Hearn, the authorities have “allowed” his escape and intend to track him.
Patterson’s first contact is with a truck driver who had picked up Slaney early on in his journey west to catch up with Hearn in Vancouver:
Where’s Slaney? Patterson said. The guy flicked the billfold closed and put it back in his pocket.
I picked him up. We were together a good three hours. I had him.
He’s gone, Patterson said.
I stopped to get gas, the man said. A few snacks. I come out and he’s gone. The only thing I can figure, there was a station wagon on the lot when I went into the store and I guess he got a ride with the lady. Housewife, it looked like. All I can tell you. He was willing to have me take him to Montreal, drop him off where we said. But I come out and he’s gone.
Without giving too much away, Caught will follow Slaney’s journey to Montreal where he also hides out for a bit, west to Vancouver where he finds Hearn to get details on this latest plot to bring weed from Colombia, a sailboat voyage to Colombia itself. All of that fairly conventional crime novel fare. The novel’s plot makes extended stops along the way as Moore works on developing Slaney, the character, as opposed to Slaney, the dope-runner — old girl friends, new ones, remembering his past all feature in these.
I don’t read much crime fiction but will confess to an affection for the more literary versions — regular visitors here will know my enthusiasm for Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels. In all crime fiction, there needs to be a careful tilting of the balance between “crime” and “character”. Conventional novels in the genre lean on the former; literary authors who venture into it successfully emphasize the latter (Tom Ripley is far more interesting than his crimes in all five Ripley novels).
For this reader, Lisa Moore’s problem in Caught is that she never finds that balance. The novel bounces back and forth between the two — as much as she tries to develop Slaney, Patterson and the rest of the cast as characters, the plot demands of telling the crime side of the story keep intruding in often lengthy, all too obvious, episodes. The result makes for a frustrating read: extended bursts of predictable action followed by sections focused on character development with the two threads never really successfully coming together.
I will qualify that assessment with the observation that prize juries (and other readers) often find more in Moore’s work than I do. I have read all three of her prize-nominated works and none of them rated more than “okay” with me — all promised more in the description than they delivered in the reading. As we await the fall lists for Canada’s key literary prizes we shall see if that holds true for Caught as well. Lisa Moore is a talented enough wordsmith whom I am sure is capable of producing an excellent novel — Caught is not it.