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Onyx reviews: In Sunlight or in Shadow edited by Lawrence Block

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 10/16/2016

In his introduction to this anthology of original stories inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper, editor Lawrence Block says that Hopper's paintings don't tell stories so much as they suggest them. They are moments captured in time that invite the viewer to wonder what has just happened or is about to happen.

With that thought in mind, he invited a number of authors to select a favorite Hopper work and use it as the inspiration for a short story. He did not specifically seek crime stories, although a fair number of the tales in this collection could be thus categorized. In fact, Block cast a fairly wide and diverse net in soliciting contributions. In addition to "the usual suspects," crime writers like Lee Child, Michael Connelly and Jeffery Deaver, Block also sought works from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a poet, a professor of English, Hopper's biographer and cataloger, the editor's daughter, and a late night talk show host.

As a result, Block has produced an anthology that is as diverse as the artist's works themselves. If they have anything in common, this derives from the fact that most of Hopper's paintings showed bleak tableaus. They often feature a solitary figure who does not appear happy, and even when there are multiple people in a painting they all seem to be isolated. Only rarely are they interacting in any significant manner. Therefore, this isn't a particularly cheery collection, but it is an excellent one.

Some of the authors mention Hopper and the inspirational painting directly. Michael Connelly, for example, sends his series protagonist Harry Bosch to Chicago on a case that puts him in a room with Hopper's most iconic work, Nighthawks, which Connelly has mentioned in a number of his previous novels. In that sense, the content of the painting isn't as much the inspiration as is the painting itself and its reputation. Joyce Carol Oates contributes a story in which the concept of the frozen moment in a painting is key: time does not appear to pass as characters converge on a particular moment but never seem to get there.

Other authors use the scene in the painting as a launching pad for the story—or for its culmination, as is the case with Megan Abbott's opening story of a fraught marriage. In other cases, the scenario is only a minor touch-point, one that establishes a mood or serves as a creative spark. One of the more interesting tales for fans of Hopper is "The Preacher Collects" by Gail Levin, a Hopper's biographer who uses fiction to address a supposedly true story about Hopper's final years in a way that non-fiction can't. Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler writes a creepy story involving clowns that is quite appropriate given recent incidents reported in the media. Novelist and poet Nicholas Christopher adds a bit of magic realism to the collection with a story about a seaside house that seems to be getting bigger, combined with a touch of maritime mythology.

Stephen King contemplates the tableau to reveal the fiendish scheme a couple has devised to fend off the depression. Comedian and talk-show host Craig Ferguson has penned a wry and contemplative story that involves discussions of religion and atheism, fueled by medicinal marijuana use. Most but not all of the stories are set in the first half of the 20th century, including a Cold War tale from Deaver in which a Hopper painting is used as a piece of spycraft.

Other contributors to the anthology include Kris Nelscott (a pen name of Kristine Kathryn Rusch), Joe R. Lansdale, Professor Warren Moore from Newberry College, writer and artist Jonathan Santlofer (channeling Rear Window) and Justin Scott, as well as Block himself and his daughter, Jill D. Block.

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