Book Review: From Sea to Stormy Sea, edited by Lawrence Block
By Thomas PluckDecember 11, 2019
Themed anthologies are hit or miss; sometimes the concept creates a cohesive whole (and other times an incoherent hole). So far, Lawrence Block has edited three anthologies of stories inspired by art, and the newest—as people who’ve never stepped foot on a horse track say—is the Trifecta. The first, In Sunlight or in Shadow, focused on Edward Hopper, beloved by noir aficionados, most famous for Nighthawks. With stories by Stephen King, Megan Abbott, Joyce Carol Oates, and the Edgar winning “Autumn at the Automat” by Lawrence Block himself, it was a tough act to follow.
But follow he did, with Alive in Shape and Color, keeping with the art theme, but giving writers free rein to choose everything from the cave paintings at Lascaux to Norman Rockwell and Georgia O’Keeffe. Some writers returned, others did not, and some new faces emerged. Lee Child, Joe Lansdale, Michael Connelly, Warren Moore—and disclaimer, this reviewer—wrote stories for the second book, which was reviewed in the New York Times. By an art critic who was puzzled why the stories weren’t strictly about the paintings. Reviewers more accustomed to anthologies liked it, and there’s no such thing as bad publicity they say—even if your story gets misconstrued as “women getting unhinged on their periods” as the case may be—but the bad publicity worked, because there’s a third volume coming out next week: From Sea to Stormy Sea, with some new faces and some old, like the always reliable Warren Moore, Jan Burke, Sara Paretsky, Gary Philips, Jerome Charyn, Christa Faust, and another new story by Lawrence Block himself. This time around, Mr. Block chose the works of art and let the writers pick from the list. They are all American painters, from Reginald Marsh (a personal favorite, whose art I’ve written stories about before, though not this time) to Mark Rothko, Mondrian, Warhol, and Winslow Homer. And a third time, he inspires some great stories from his roster.
I have a theory about this, and it comes from experience. For one, LB is a legendary short story writer, and you don’t want to disappoint him. So you do your very best. When I got the nod for Alive in Shape and Color, someone had dropped out and I had a month to write the story. And I used every hour of that month to edit it to the best I could get it. That paid off, as not only was it accepted, but Liz French of Library Journal called my story—based on Truth Comes Out of Her Well to Shame Mankind by Jean-Léon Gérôme—“stunning.” (As you can tell, I’ve gotten nearly as much mileage out of that one-word review as I have from Joyce Carol Oates calling me a “lovely kitty man” to Jonathan Santlofer at the signing for In Sunlight or in Shadow.) But you take what you can get. The other theory I have is that everyone gets excited that Lawrence Block might write a new story for the anthology. This time, he did.
This may be the best of the three, and I’m in the second one. The first is a treasure, if singularly focused on Hopper, and the second is a bright and splashy watercolor of all sorts of stories. The third has seventeen stories based on some of Block’s favorite paintings by some of his favorite writers, and to get back to the horse race metaphor I made starting this review, he knows how to pick a perfecta. There’s not a bad story in the bunch, they range from historical to noir to pulp to speculative fiction, and like the art that inspired them, you will be thinking about some for a long time.
Patti Abbott takes us out to the prairie for a tale that could have been told by Willa Cather; Charles Ardai brings us to Times Square and breaks our hearts with a story of streetwalkers and street peddlers and lost family, inspired by Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie. Jan Burke digs into the history of Andy Warhol’s Thirteen Most Wanted Men and serendipitously keeps the “family mystery” thread going. I know this was mere chance because Mr. Block puts the stories in alphabetical order by author, rather than agonize over trying to balance them by length and theme, which can drive an anthologist batty (again, from personal experience). Jerome Charyn, the multi-faceted author of historical fictions, gives us a post-apocalyptic nightmare worthy of Cormac McCarthy based on Twilight of Man, a stunning lithograph by Rockwell Kent. Brendan duBois creates a delightful revenge tale set in a hurricane, and Janice Eidus concocts a compelling story of a woman who survives a brain aneurysm from a Rothko painting, which might look like what you see when you are afflicted by one. Christa Faust teases us with a road noir tale called “Garnets” that is quite a gem, and the only complaint is that it isn’t longer.
Filmmaker Scott Frank writes a thrilling tale of a thief hunting the art treasures hidden by a real estate scammer, and Alabama noir master Tom Franklin gives us a slice of Southern Gothic as bittersweet as vinegar pie. One of my favorites is “Someday, a Revolution,” by Jane Hamilton, based on Daughters of Revolution by Grant Wood, a painting of three pinch-faced women looking at you and finding your breeding lacking. She gives us the backstory of these women, and while it’s less bloody than Franklin’s, it’s just as harsh a swallow. Barry N. Malzberg takes a crowded riverfront by George Bellows and turns it into a nightmare out of Hieronymous Bosch, with the subjects accosting their creator. And Warren Moore, the professor and crime writer who has been in all three of these anthologies, pens a heartwarming story of misunderstandings between father and son. It’s my favorite story in the book, and Moore paints a picture himself, of the child who doesn’t fit in, that is a work of art in itself.
Micah Nathan gives us a hardboiled tale on the dangers of revenge, that like Moore, peers into the dark heart of its villains and victims with a keen eye. And Sara Paretsky gives us a searing story of a girl exiled to a family farm in ‘20s Kansas for her wildness, and how her entitled attempts at flouting bigoted customs turns as ugly as can be. It’s another standout in the collection from one of the genre’s masters. And just in time, Gary Phillips lightens the mood with a story from the same timeframe, about the Satin Fox! A jewel thief who uses the bigotry of the ‘20s to help her disappear with her filched gains from the Jazz age gentry. I hope we see more Satin Fox stories, as this one is great fun. John Sandford takes inspiration from a Hollywood golden age painting that becomes a lost photo in a dead neighbor’s house, and the sleuth is the titular “Girl with an Ax,” a guitar-playing set musician who was her only friend. This one made me smile, as did the finale by Lawrence Block himself.
Block has been “in retirement” for years, and it’s been a very fecund retirement. He’s come back to write novels, novellas, and a few short stories. For Alive in Shape and Color, he reprinted a Matt Scudder story entitled “Looking for David,” and Matt is always welcome. In From Sea to Stormy Sea we get a brand new story, “The Way We See the World,” that plays with how we talk about art, sparkling with that famous Lawrence Block dialogue, and flirts with metafiction. It’s a delight to read, and the perfect finish to a volume of stories based on art.
If it takes an anthology to inspire new stories from the grandmaster who gave us Bernie Rhodenbarr, Keller, Matt Scudder, and Tanner, I hope Lawrence Block never runs out of ideas for art-themed anthologies, or writers eager to be in their tables of contents. They are a treat, and beautiful books besides. Pictures, and a few thousand words that are worth as much, if not more.