Review: In Sunlight or In Shadow, Edited by Lawrence Block

In Sunlight or In Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper, edited by Lawrence Block, is a newly-commissioned anthology of seventeen superbly-crafted stories inspired by the paintings of Edward Hopper (Available December 6, 2016).

Edward Hopper is probably the first—and possibly the only—famous visual artist you’ll think of when discussing noir. His Nighthawks encapsulates the essence of the genre—gloomy, alienated, down on your luck. So how come no one thought of an anthology based on Edward Hopper’s paintings before?

It took Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster Lawrence Block to take the call, and a herd of the best writers around came running when asked if they would like to contribute. Stephen King. Joyce Carol Oates. Michael Connolly. Lee Child. Megan Abbott. Craig Ferguson…? Trust me, he can write. There’s not a bad story in the bunch, and I’m not even talking about a forgettable one. And, there’s quite a bit of range, which is difficult with a themed anthology—I should know, I’ve edited three of them. 

The settings vary from the twenties to the Cold War to the present day, and the stories aren’t all noir—espionage, comedy, a ghostly story, a whale of a tale, chillers and thrillers, and a burlesque show revenge tale by Abbott that kicks things off with just the right sense of fun. You can tell that everyone approached this not only with a love of the artist and a respect for its esteemed editor, but with joy and mischief, as if they’d been waiting for the chance to write such a story. 

When an editor who’s a master of the short story asks you for one, you bring your A game. And he knew just who to ask. Stephen King’s story is his own but evokes John O’Hara by way of Highsmith or even Willeford; it’s so delightfully chilling. Joyce Carol Oates’s tale will please fans of her Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang; she writes with a skinning knife, leaving emotions bloody and bare. Kris Nelscott (nom de plume of the prolific Kristine Kathryn Rusch) brings us on a train tour of the darkest and most horrifying elements of American history. And Jonathan Santlofer takes the breath from our lungs with his twisty thriller. 

Joe Lansdale creates a new character worthy of a novel, in his “The Projectionist.” Here's a short passage: 

They have clowns and jugglers and dog acts and shitty magicians and such on Saturday mornings before the cartoons. They do stuff up there on the stage and the kids go wild, yelling and throwing popcorn and candy.

Now and again, a dog decides to take a dump on the stage, or one of the clowns falls off his bike and does a gainer into the front row, or maybe a juggler misses a toss and hits himself in the head. Kids like that even better. I think people are kind of strange when you get right down to it, cause everything that’s funny mostly has to do with being embarrassed or hurt, don’t you think?

Warren Moore gives a bittersweet backstory to the tall woman working in “Office at Night” and brings such pathos that I’m thinking about her, still. Nicholas Christopher’s magic realist “Rooms by the Sea” is haunting, enchanting, and a fantasy I wanted to believe in. And Megan Abbott takes us behind the scenes at “The Girlie Show” and rolls us in the alley for our wallets.

In one alcove, a girl in a golden kimono is slathering something from a bottle all over a naked six-foot blonde, transforming her in seconds from ruddy and veined to satin-skinned.

In another, Pauline sees two long-legged girls with matching brittle blonde waves are straightening the green feathers on their costumes.

“Mae’s mama’s come to take her back to Kansas,” one of them mutters, eyeing Pauline. “Get religion back in her cooch.”

Pauline starts to say something, but Mae tugs her arm, moving them past. “Don’t feed the parrots. You could catch trench mouth just by looking at those two.”

Lawrence Block himself ends the collection with a delight of a new story, set in an Automat. I’ve read most of his short tales, and this one is only like the others in its craft. He keeps his cards close to his chest, and even his strong voice is altered only slightly to pull us into the story’s world. Block keeps writing some of his best work during his retirement. My conjecture would be that now that he’s free to do whatever he pleases, we’re seeing stories that have been waiting just beneath the surface for a chance to breach. 

My prediction is you’ll be hearing a lot about this anthology when awards come around next year, so you might as well read it now, whether you’re a fan of story collections or not. The beautiful reproductions of the art make reading feel like a leisurely stroll through an exhibition, and following the imagination of seventeen different writers as they reach out from Hopper’s canvas and invite you inside. 


To learn more or order a copy, visit:

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Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and the editor of the Protectors anthologies to benefit PROTECT. He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim (not as part of a clever heist). Hailing from Nutley, New Jersey, home of criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, Thomas has so far evaded arrest. He shares his hideout with his sassy Louisiana wife and their two felines. You can find him at and on Twitter as @thomaspluck.


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