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Onyx reviews: Alive in Shape and Color: 17 Paintings by Great Artists and the Stories They Inspired edited by Lawrence Block

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 12/17/2017

Last year, Lawrence Block edited In Sunlight or in Shadow, an anthology of stories inspired by the works of Edward Hopper. The success of that collection led to a follow-up, but this time Block allowed his contributors to cast a wider net. They were empowered to choose their own work of art for inspiration. Many of the contributors have returned from the earlier book, although a few have dropped out and some new blood added. All of the stories save one are new: David Morrell's story was written and published three decades ago.

The artists who inspired these authors range from the well known (Renoir, Rodin, Gauguin, Bosch, Rockwell, O'Keeffe, Dali, Van Gogh, Magritte) to the more obscure (Art Frahm, Clyfford Still, Lilias Torrance Newton, Balthus, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Katsushika Hokusai, the cave paintings of Lascaux). Most are paintings, although one story was inspired by a Rodin statue. Many of the works are familiar (Hokusai's Great Wave is particularly well known), but some of the works of art from famous painters may be new to many readers.

The works and the artists chosen by each author say something about them as individuals. Only one is blatantly obvious: who else would Michael Connelly pick but Hieronymous Bosch, the Flemish artist best known of his bizarre triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Connelly has been writing crime novels featuring detective Harry Bosch for decades. "The Third Panel's" biggest surprise is that it doesn't feature his series detective.

The stories are also revealing of the nature of inspiration. How does an image translate into a story in a writer's mind? Some of the stories involve the actual work of art, whereas others are inspired by the scene depicted in the painting. Jill D. Block, for example, looked at a painting of a friendly neighborhood police officer giving a traffic safety talk to an elementary school class and came up with a story about a man responding to a summons for jury duty. The jury pool, she writes, is as unruly as a class of kindergarteners. But the connection to the painting proves to be more ominous than that. Lee Child regarded a still life of flowers in a vase and conjured up a period piece about a man sent to Paris to acquire a Renoir painting shortly after that artist's death.

Jeffery Deaver explores jealousy and deception in the world of archeology with a story inspired by the famous cave paintings in southwestern France. Joe R. Lansdale was inspired by Rockwell's painting "First Trip to the Beauty Shop" to write a fiendishly clever story set in a small town barber shop. A flashback to the barber's time in a Japanese prisoner of war camp provides him with what he needs to survive an unexpected confrontation. Edward Hopper expert Gail Levin writes a story about a journalist's fraught interview with Georgia O'Keeffe in which the artist bristles at attempts to analyze or pigeon-hole her work.

Morrell's story is inspired by Van Gogh, postulating an explanation for that artist's reported descent into madness, and the ensuing madness by someone who studied Van Gogh's art. These are just a few of the stories in this intriguing anthology. On the whole, it may not be as strong as the Hopper-themed anthology, but the good thing about books like this is that different stories will appeal to different readers, and there's something in here for everyone. This one can not only introduce readers to authors with whom they may not be familiar, it can also introduce them to artists and paintings they may not have previously known.

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