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The Globe and Mail

Lisa Moore, genre writer? Only if you think thrillers can't be literary

Newfoundland author Lisa Moore in Outer Cove, Newfoundland, July 30, 2010.

Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

Lisa Moore
House of Anansi

The most notable difference between Lisa Moore's brilliant, much-lauded previous novels and her latest – a thriller chock full of such genre standards as drug running, seedy motels, aliases, strippers, double crosses, a cop who comes to care for his quarry and erotic adventure on the high seas – is the dust jacket.

Whereas the earlier books have featured ambiguous, almost sculpturally evocative images on their covers, Caught announces itself as pure pulp: a chick in a cherry-coloured bikini juts one hip forward against a backdrop of sun-dazzled waves and white spume, while the title's tense monosyllable looms overhead. But open the book to any page and the writing is quintessential Moore: precise, compressed, intimately rhythmic, mesmerizingly smart. This foray into so-called genre fiction by an exemplar of so-called literary fiction sacrifices nothing in terms of style.

Caught picks up the story of David Slaney an hour after he breaks out of prison and a day before he turns twenty-five. It's 1978. He's served four years of a sentence for importing two tons of pot, having been apprehended in "the biggest bust in Canadian history," and he's hungry not just for freedom but for redemption – in the form of trying the whole caper again, this time without getting caught.

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A friend on the outside has lined things up. All Slaney has to do is hitch from Nova Scotia to Vancouver; elude the law as well as any disgruntled investors who lost money when the last deal went sour; snag a new identity and a passport to match; fly to Mexico; sail to Colombia; deliver a case full of cash to a bunch of soldiers-cum-traffickers encamped at the edge of a jungle, and sail home again with two million dollars' worth of weed in the hold. Did I mention the hurricane?

That a writer of Moore's caliber could infuse this propulsive, adrenalin-drenched-but-not-especially-original plot with searingly fresh language and sharply drawn characters is hardly surprising. The interesting question is why? Why would a writer of her talent want to constrain herself within the formulaic conventions of genre fiction? Sales, might be one obvious if spurious suggestion. But possible commercial motivations aside, is there an aesthetic appeal to working within the confines of the thriller, something about the demands of the form that allows her to flex her creative muscles in particularly invigorating ways?

Although all Moore's fiction shares a distinctive, distilled sensibility – she makes wonderful use of the cropped and frequently elliptical cadences of human speech – Caught is a leaner, more linear creature than the earlier novels, shaped by its hurtling progression through time and space. In preferring event to rumination, the author is not unlike the prison psychologist Slaney respects and trusts: "She didn't care about feelings. They were transitory and unremarkable. Action mattered to her. She was interested in his character and how it had been shaped through the things he had done."

Most of the people Slaney encounters on his journey appear briefly and then never again. Their significance resides in what meaning Slaney extracts from his interactions with them. Yet he isn't given to introspection, not exactly. He's an expert observer, keenly aware of what he notices, yet disinclined to analyze it. It's a wonderful choice on Moore's part. By making us privy to the raw, unprocessed objects of Slaney's attention, she enlists us as collaborators in making meaning of what he sees.

While on the lam, he encounters a girl who chews ice cubes; when they kiss "it felt like her tongue had been dipped in fluorescent light," and when they part "her crying had little hiccups in it." In the entrance to a bar, while keeping one uneasy eye on the road, Slaney peers into a dark corner where a woman is wiping glasses with a red cloth; he sees "the rag prick the shadows as she snapped it." Of the encyclopedia salesman who once visited his childhood home, dressed in a "a smarmy jacket" and impressing upon his meek parents the "merits of an education," Slaney recalls, "He looked ready to eat them. But the jacket was holding him back. The jacket had him by the arms and he couldn't move."

Slaney reveres trust and doubt as arcane assets, elemental and "pure." He himself has the gift of uncannily pure vision, seeming to see through surfaces. Yet he's no prophet. His tragedy is his inability to make sense of what he sees. He's less Cassandra than Odysseus, an inveterate thrill-seeker, ravenous for truth and knowledge, unable to resist any experience – voyage, tryst or quest – that might deliver such treasure. As for any lingering concerns about the lameness of the genre, that last analogy ought to give skeptics pause. What is The Odyssey, after all, but the grandpappy of all thrillers? Genre fiction – like all fiction – is lame only in proportion to the fitness of its practitioner, and Lisa Moore is very hale indeed.

Leah Hager Cohen's most recent novel is The Grief of Others.

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