Edited by Lawrence Block — That wily fox of Manhattan crime writing Lawrence Block has been weaving his Matthew Scudder stories for over 40 years now. In his own contribution to Alive in Shape and Color, which he edits, we find Scudder and his wife sitting on the piazza in Florence overlooked by David, the famous statue by Michaelangelo. That’s the idea here – each short story in the collection begins with a different piece of art and around their chosen work each author has fashioned a story. Most of them involve murder, but not all…
In this case, Scudder runs into a killer he put away decades ago, who now lives in Italy. The man feels the need to explain why he carved up his lover one fateful and bloody night in New York, and although it’s one of the more memorable pieces in the book it feels a little more like a contemplation than a crime story per se.
However, it is nice to catch up with Scudder. Many of the other big name crime writers have not included their signature characters. Lee Child writes about a Renoir that I believe he actually owns, and while there is an art scam there is no Jack Reacher. Jeffery Deaver chose to write about archaeological rivalry in relation to the ancient cave paintings at Lascaux, but there’s no sign of Lincoln Rhyme. Although Michael Connelly’s story is aptly based on a panel from The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, there’s no sign of Harry.
There’s nothing to say that the authors should have included their big gun detectives. For them, contributing to Alive in Shape and Color has been an opportunity to break out and follow a different muse. However, fans looking for more on these characters may find themselves disappointed.
Still, there are many delights to discover here. Joe R Lansdale’s Charlie the Barber draws influence from The Haircut, an illustration by Norman Rockwell. Two hoodlums invade a barbershop run by Charlie and his daughter in 1950s Texas and attempt to take everyone hostage. There is manage and action aplenty. Like Jeffery Deaver, pulpmeister Thomas Pluck’s story involves archaeological rivalry and when a self-styled Indiana Jones-type swoops in on a Bronze Age dig where there is evidence of human sacrifice, he finds he may need more than his trowel and sieve. Based on La Vérité sortant du puits by Jean Léon Gerome – a painting of a naked woman emerging from a well – Pluck’s story is not only earthy, but brutal, visceral and clever.
There are 17 pieces of art and short stories to choose from, and arguably the best painting comes with the most interesting piece. Van Gogh’s Cypresses is the inspiration for Orange is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity by David Morrell. This author wrote First Blood, which became the basis for the Rambo franchise but this is one case where we can be thankful that the signature character does not appear. Morrell’s story is about two art students, one of whom is drawn into a painting by Van Dorn, a proxy for Van Gogh. Van Dorn stabbed his eyes out while at the height of his creativity and in exploring the artist’s work and his madness, both young men head to France to emulate the painter, with curious consequences. I’d struggle to call this crime fiction, but it’s one of the best in the book for the way it ties in and plays with Van Gogh’s actual story. Mad… and brilliant.
Sarah Wienman’s piece set in Montreal involves gangsters and illicit love, Joyce Carol Oates’s journey into the painting Les beaux jours by Balthus is creepy and bizarre, while Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written a story based on the attempt by political activists to blow up the cast of Rodin’s The Thinker in Cleveland in 1970. This is a collection that will take you in a whole range of fascinating directions. However, where the writers have chosen to experiment and explore, rather than giving us a crime story per se, there are pieces that lose their grip a little. Yet there are some real gems too, and this book is a must if you love both art and crime fiction. I’d recommend dipping into Alive in Shape and Color in between reading novels from your TBR pile, rather than pushing through these short stories in one go.
Check out our review of In Sunlight or in Shadow, a previous collection featuring many of the same authors, each writing about a piece by realist painter Edward Hopper.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars