• By Lisa Moore
  • Grove Press
  • 336 pp.

A criminal seems unable to stay ahead of the police while plotting one last job.


It is rare for the hero of a prison escape story – or any story in which the protagonist is going up against the law – to need to tell himself to “stay alert.” Near the beginning of Lisa Moore’s new novel Caught, David Slaney decides, “He would stay alert to the parallel universes of dark paths and wrong turns. He would calculate if this then that a thousand times a day. Take into account the weakness in every man’s character that could make him swerve or sidestep.”

It’s unusual because our anti-heroes are usually given such awareness from the start: they are preternaturally aware of their surroundings and of who is lying or telling the truth. They are expert, experienced criminals, often attempting “one last job.” And while Slaney is, in fact, attempting one last job after breaking out of prison – to traffic millions of dollars of marijuana to Canada from Colombia – the reader is never absolutely sure he is up to the task. Despite our access to his inner monologue, it’s difficult to get a full read on Slaney.

Moore is sparing with descriptive terms, telling Slaney’s story with near-Hemingway economy. The reader only realizes Slaney made a joke when the other person reacts. When he telephones his old partner from a hiding place in Montreal, his sarcastic response at being told to adopt a new name and identity is only apparent after a few exchanges:

You have to get a new name.

I’m on it.

They want to set an example.

I won’t even think about you.

You think I’m kidding? I’m telling you.

Perhaps because it takes so long to get a handle on Slaney’s personality, the book’s pace seems slow for the first half, as Slaney attempts to elude the authorities before boarding a plane to Mexico. Because it’s unclear if Slaney is really suited to a life of crime, the reader is unsure whether to throw support behind him or just hope for the whole plot to be abandoned.

This uncertainty is only compounded as occasional chapters from a Staff Sgt. Patterson’s perspective reveal that the police are not just a step or two behind Slaney throughout his journey, but often way ahead of him.

Without the assurance of either Slaney’s competence or the police force’s confusion, it seems like almost a matter of chance whether Slaney will succeed. Readers may analyze his various encounters with strangers and old friends along the way for clues as to whether he is destined to succeed or fail. Every time he escapes the police’s notice or wins favor with a stranger –  his random acts of kindness include helping a young bride with her dress’s stubborn zipper and bringing an elderly woman cigarettes – we may put a check in the “pro” column. Every time we learn from Patterson that the last person to pick Slaney up on the highway was actually an undercover cop, or that the last phone he used was bugged, we put a check in the “con” column.

The book’s title would appear to tip the scales in the “con” direction. And indeed, several people tell Slaney he is doomed, and he experiences various crises of faith. But the police also face setbacks, and Slaney has the occasional uptick in “alertness,” so the reader can never be sure how it will all end.

Moore is fond of metaphors, and in Slaney’s more addled moods –  brought on by substance abuse or just feeling overwhelmed – they come fast and furious. For example, he remembers his mother’s trusting nature as an almost aggressive stance: “Slaney’s mother could not be felled by a lie. Her trust was a magnetic force field. She used it like a weapon; she shot a beam of trust into the dark from the centre of her forehead and it blinded whatever glanced that way.”

It’s too bad the same strikingly descriptive metaphors are never turned on Slaney himself. The most we really learn about his personality – or how he views his personality – is from what he tells the prison psychotherapist: that he is a good listener and doesn’t judge others. I read once that audiences occasionally root for the criminal to get away with it, because the idea of even an anti-hero getting caught is more anxiety-inducing than the alternative. However, I never liked Slaney enough to really root for him.

Moore’s writing is careful and assured, and everything that happens to Slaney seems deliberate, which encourages many readers’ tendency to overanalyze everything that happens. But in the end, it’s unclear if any of Slaney’s various encounters affected his fate one way or another. Given Moore’s obvious confidence in crafting the character and his journey, I have to believe that lack of certainty she offers the reader is deliberate; perhaps she is using Slaney to send a message about how little we can predict about how our lives will turn out, or why.

Virginia Pasley is a journalist currently working as the Associate Director of Communications at the National Association for Federal Credit Unions in Arlington, VA.

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