Caught, by Lisa Moore

by

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

We meet Slaney sliding down an embankment beside a Nova Scotia highway. It is about three in the morning — one hour (and he figures about two miles) after he escaped from Springhill Prison where he has spent the last four years on a drugs charge. He was determined to get out before his twenty-fifth birthday and he has made it, by a single day.

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.

10 Responses to “Caught, by Lisa Moore”

  1. Frank Murphy Says:

    Love Lisa Moore. Enjoyed this. But help me with a couple of plausibility problems. Suspension of belief and going along with a ripping yarn and all that but the logic’s got to hold. (Spoiler alert)

    Motivation was to get Hearn. Hearn was got. But a high risk adventure that was good for the purposes of the narrative but highly unlikely in the “real” world was allowed to unfold. Fine with me, it was a good trip, but in the real world it was also “entrapment” (an undercover cop even hands over forty grand to a co-conspirator) and would have been thrown out of court.

    Hearn was wanted for jumping bail and a small outstanding matter of 5 years before being caught importing tons of dope. The story owes us motivations for this illogical action by the authorities. Though it did allow Moore to take us through the dorky surveillance hi-tech of the day.

    The sketches of the young Newfoundlander Slaney and the love of his life Jennifer are at the heart of the thing and I wouldn’t have missed them but they should have run this by a lawyer.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      My reading was that the authorities wanted Hearn (not sure why since, as you point out, his only revealed crime was a relatively minor affair five years ago) but felt following Slaney was the only way to locate where he was. What I did find implausible was that the Toronto Drug Squad would assign an officer to lead the case — Vancouver and Newfoundland were part of the story, but Toronto was not. Not to mention the entrapment which you highlight.

      So, yes, I figured those devices were more for story convenience than an attempt at realistic portrayal. I assumed throughout that Moore was more interested in developing Slaney as a character than in the crime story — if she had been more successful at that, I would have been more inclined to forgive those shortcomings. As it was, I think she lost ground on both fronts.

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  2. annelogan17 Says:

    I agree with your point Kevin, I think Moore was more interested in producing an in-depth character than developing a realistic plot. Doing both in one book is a tall order, and it probably would have behooved her to stick with one or the other!

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  3. Frank Murphy Says:

    Not to flog it too much but here’s another example. At the end of the book, Moore ties up a minor theme. You could describe it as the unfairness of fate, the random mysterious toss of the dice that results in Slaney doing more time while Hearn has a soft landing with the tenured spot teaching at the University. That’s unfair we say. We don’t though have any idea how it happened other than the author told us it happened. (We are told of the technicality that got him off the new charges.) The same circumstance that anchors her yarn about Slaney’s charmingly bungling life (she describes it as “the biggest drug bust in Canadian history” — I was being sarcastic when in my earlier comment I called the standing charges against Hearn “a small outstanding matter”) for Hearn result in a secure respected place in society and a comfy old age. With back story and context missing here the novel ends up feeling unfinished, not ready for prime time.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I confess that I was more frustrated by Moore’s inability to make Slaney a truly interesting character — and not up to the detailed critique of your comment. I would observe that there is no way a sailboat with some dope is “the biggest drug bust in Canadian history”. Newfoundland, maybe — not Canada.

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  4. David Says:

    I think I liked this one a bit more than you, Kevin – personally I thought (with the exception of the drug deal section in Colombia) that she got the balance between the more introspective character-driven ‘literary’ elements and the demands of a ‘thriller’ plot just about right.
    If I had one issue it would be that for much of the book, because there was nothing startlingly original about the plot, it did feel a bit like an author setting herself a challenge to write a genre novel (and thus like a bit of a writing exercise) rather than her being driven to write this story because of any real interest in an idea or a character. Having said that I did think she pulled it all together at the end when it becomes clear that Slaney had been ‘caught’ since page one and that freedom was only ever illusory. And there were some lovely moments along the way – it was perhaps a bit obvious, but I did like how she had the rooster crowing as Patterson got Amy to betray Slaney.
    The only one of Moore’s novels I’d read previously was ‘February’ and whilst I quite enjoyed it I didn’t rush out and buy anything else by her. ‘Caught’ on the other hand has made me quite keen to try one of her earlier books.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I think we have similar concerns but they obviously landed more heavily with me than they did with you (or the Giller jury). I will be interested in how my fellow Shadow Giller jurors react to Caught — part of me wonders if there is simply some aspect of Moore’s writing that I just don’t get.

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  5. Frank Murphy Says:

    Anything wrong with Caught could be fixed with dose of Elmore Leonard. February— highest praise in my mind — has some Alistair MacLeod in it. And off-topic I wanted to be sure you haven’t missed Bill Gaston. He’s 3 for 3 in my reading. Sointula, The Order of Good Cheer and The World.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I agree with what you say about February — indeed, more Alistair MacLeod would have been welcome. And I will indulge in a bit of blog promotion — I will be reviewing MacLeod’s short stories later this month or early next month.

      As for Caught, from my point of view it needed a bit of a push on either the plot or character front — yes, a dose of Elmore Leonard would have been welcome. David liked the book but even he found the plot a bit ordinary, so I think it missed on that front. I found Moore’s character portrayal of Slaney a bit flat — I wished she had found some twist to make him more interesting.

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