Lisa Moore’s latest release, Caught, has garnered the level of critical acclaim and major literary prize nominations readers have come to expect of a Lisa Moore novel, including a Giller Prize nomination. Full disclosure here: while I’ve always admired the precision and beauty of Moore’s writing, I have often found in the past that her short stories and novels were difficult for me, as a reader, to connect with, because the literary virtuosity overpowered the plot and character development (I’m quick to admit that this is far more a shortcoming in me as a reader than in Lisa Moore as a writer). From this perspective, for me, Caught was by far her best work to date. It combines the skillful mastery of language typical of her work, with a tightly-plotted, character-driven story that is as page-turning as any bestselling thriller.
The novel begins with David Slaney escaping from prison after serving four years of a sentence for drug trafficking. Slaney is on the loose with the clear-cut intention of breaking the law again: his former partner in crime, who got away scot-free last time, has another drug-running scheme planned and if Slaney can get away clean and get on board (literally, since the plan involves sailing a boatload of marijuana up from Central America), he’ll finally be rich — and free. Slaney doesn’t suspect that every step of his escape has been not only monitored by in some cases abetted by the police, who are hoping he will lead them to his partner and to an even bigger bust that will put them both in jail.
The tension of Slaney’s attempt to escape from prison in New Brunswick and get to Vancouver without being caught alternates perfectly with glimpses into the point of view of the federal agent who is tracking his every move. The dramatic irony’s pretty intense, but what I found most interesting in this part of the book were the vignettes of the people Slaney meets along the way. Some help him out with no idea that he’s an escaped convict; others do know, or figure it out, but often aid his escape plan anyway. There are great, tiny moments of human connection and kindness here, though the reader may sometimes wonder if such kindness is wasted on David Slaney, a character in whose point of view we are immersed but whose motives may remain elusive. Slaney wants to be free — and mistakenly thinks he is — but if so, why is he escaping only to commit the same crime and risk prison all over again? He’s a smart guy and by no means a stereotypical criminal, but the narrowness of his thinking can be frustrating sometimes — which is part of what makes his character intriguing to read about.
Because we know about the high-tech surveillance going on behind the scenes (high tech, anyway, for the late 1970s when this story is set) and because we know that some of the people on whom Slaney and his partner Hearn are relying are actually police or police informants, there’s a sense in which this story has all the inevitability of a Greek tragedy — though Slaney is not necessarily the towering figure of a tragic hero. The moral questions raised by the book are coloured in multiple hues of grey because of the fact that the entire plot centres around importing a substance — marijuana — that a huge percentage of the book’s readers are likely to feel should not be illegal in the first place. The question of whether to side with cops or robbers is never clear-cut — you want to root for Slaney because you’re immersed in his perspective, yet there’s little about the man to admire or cheer for.
This moral ambiguity, along with the incredible clarity and precision of the language (Moore is master of the tiny detail that illuminates an entire scene or character in a sentence or two), takes a story whose plot is pure thriller, and elevates it unquestionably to the level of the finest literary fiction. This is a brilliantly crafted novel.